“The experience of sweet things is such an integral part of our lives, and such an enjoyable one, that we rarely think about the complex systems of labor and industry that go into the products that give us such apparently ‘simple’ pleasure.”
In Poor Tastes Good
In Poor Tastes Good explores the politics and history of sugar, examining moments of bitterness found therein. I focus on the history of beet sugar, which was introduced to the United States as an abolitionist tactic and is the subject of recent labor struggles in the upper Midwest. Archival materials help me explore the transformation of sugar from sweetness to something else—a sticky mess within which we get stuck. Between metaphor and formalism, between social practice and interactivity, this project pushes the boundaries of my practice while the subject’s boundaries are almost limitless.
The physical space of sugar consumption—the dinner table—becomes the gathering place for this research. Just as events accrue meaning over time, the stains of dinner parties I staged to discuss the environmental, labor, and historical perspectives on sugar beets become meaningful symbols that ask for the audience’s attention. Stemming out from the ritualized space of the table, fragments unfold. I wonder: can the violence of Hollywood speak back to the violence of sugar production? Neon is mediated by the shifting images of glass breaking in cinema, alternating between the pleasure and disgust of sugar.
Using metaphors from sound and the material messiness of sugar, two turntables speak to each other, but their records are made of sugar. One record contains audio from archival sources ranging from the 1830s to 2013, including David Lee Child’s abolitionist tracts, Charles Fourier’s utopian thoughts about labor and slavery, and pro-union letters in support of American Crystal Sugar workers. The other record is a replica of the 1961 chart-topping hit by the Archies, “Sugar, Sugar.” These records will degrade, ultimately breaking the record players and resulting in a feedback loop. As with all history, there is more here than we can easily digest.
Hard-wired to seek sweetness …
We’re hard-wired to seek sweetness, born to love it from that first sip of mother’s milk. We have sugary confections for every occasion, special and otherwise: Halloween candy and Grandma’s apple pie, birthday cake and ice cream, chocolate chip cookies after school. Maybe you take a lump or two with your morning cup of joe or grab a piece of candy to break up the afternoon’s doldrums.
“The experience of sweet things is such an integral part of our lives, and such an enjoyable one, that we rarely think about the complex systems of labor and industry that go into the products that give us such apparently ‘simple’ pleasure,” says artist Katie Hargrave.
For example, sugar beet production, specifically, is an important thread in the fabric of Midwestern culture. It is also intimately connected with the abolitionist movement: anti-slavery activist David Lee Child first introduced sugar beet cultivation to New England in the 1830s with the express purpose of offering an ethical alternative to the slave-produced cane sugar from Southern plantations.
Since that time, sugar production has emerged again and again as a lightning rod for controversy—from scandals surrounding industrial accidents, like the 1919 Boston Molasses Flood, to ongoing debates over subsidies for the production of high fructose corn syrup or the twenty-month American Crystal lockout of union workers from the company’s beet sugar processing plants in Minnesota and North Dakota.
“Sugar, as a material and consumable good, has a sticky, complicated history,” Hargrave says. And it’s those bittersweet contradictions in the history of sugar in the United States that she endeavors to encode in her installation In Poor Tastes Good. What’s more: “I’m aiming to use the material itself to call attention to that tangle of issues.” The resulting work is a didactic set piece of sorts—a motley, theatrical assemblage of neon and hand-embroidered fiber pieces; audio, film, and video clips; and archival texts and historical ephemera, all relating to the manifold legacy of sugar in American culture.
Here’s the scene. A dining table is covered in an undyed linen cloth that has been embroidered all over with corporate logos: Hostess, American Crystal, C & H. Video clips of television and film play on a monitor—all scenes of “glass” shattering, showing the sugar glass used until the 1980s in lieu of the real thing as a prop in the entertainment industry. A neon message hangs just beside the monitor: the words are alternately lit to read “in poor taste” and “tastes good.”
A long bench along the wall is flanked by two old-fashioned record players; each holds a white record made of sugar instead of vinyl. One plays the Archies’ song “Sugar, Sugar”; the other is spoken word, historical texts read aloud by actors: abolitionist tracts, recipes from old cookbooks, notes from the recent lockout of American Crystal union workers. Hanging on the wall above the bench are a number of framed pieces—liner notes and album covers, notes used in the recordings, and several embroidered, beet-stained napkins.
The sugar records play simultaneously—for a short while, anyway. The records begin to disintegrate immediately under the friction of the needle. Hargrave says they will be good for maybe twenty minutes of increasingly compromised audio before the records break up entirely, likely gumming up the works of their record players.
“Failure is an important part of the project,” the artist says. “I wanted to find a way to embed destruction into the experiences of these pieces.” She explains that the records need to contain the nostalgia and pleasure and sweetness of sugar, but also its brittle instability and destructiveness, to be a material manifestation of sugar’s tangled history. “I want to implicate the viewer in that history,” Hargrave says, “to complicate the ‘simple’ pleasure of that familiar taste” by bringing to the fore the knotted, contradictory human experience—of toil, pleasure, and sometimes exploitation—that has been involved in getting sugar to our tables.
As an artist, I am interested in a poetic and quiet activism that can exist within the history and politics of the United States. Using archival and community-sourced research, I make artworks that ideally allow the audience to see themselves as shapers of systems as broad as the environment, the historical record, and American political thought.
I create physical and metaphorical platforms in my installations—from newspapers to dinner tables to stages for participation. My process begins with a story, a site, or a question; develops with visits to specific locations; and is complicated by interviewing locals and questioning so-called experts. The outcome of my research varies in every project, including fiber, performance, printed matter, installation, sound, and video. Regardless of the media, I ask viewers to write their part of the story rather than simply observe. I invite them to become performers—having conversations at dinner parties, waving flags, playing games, or planting a tree. Together, we can complicate and unpack the narratives of everyday life and begin to recognize that the construction of history is made of precious fragments. We have the power to shatter the looking glass, but we are also the glue that repairs it.
b. 1985, Chicago
lives in Minneapolis
mentor: Christine Baeumler
Katie Hargrave is a multi-media artist interested in the production of American identity through politics, history, mythology, and narrative. Her work elevates stories from popular culture, those hidden in the archives, and the everyday conversations from passerby’s and participants. Originally from Chicago, Katie received an MA in Cultural Production from Brandeis University and a MFA in Intermedia from the University of Iowa.