Curation vs. Cooking


If you haven’t watched all two hundred episodes or so of the original Iron Chef series I guess I can forgive you for having a life. But really, you’re missing out. Actually, real talk, I haven’t watched a big chunk because I can’t find those with the american dub, and a huge part of the experience is listening to them moan and say inappropriate things during tasting.

If you haven’t seen any Iron Chef, this may be lost on you. It’s a show from the early 90’s where two chefs compete to cook dishes in one hour around a theme ingredient. What I’m focusing on here is the dishes themselves, and how an experienced chef constructs a many-course meal for unknown tasters to represent a theme. Turns out it’s quite a lot like preparing a games exhibition. Something to note, at the outset, is that every aspect of curation can be subverted; you can do something “wrong” to make a point. I’ll be annotating in square brackets with the alternate or resistant reading.

The first thing that sparked the comparison was the chairman’s wish to “taste cuisine never before tasted”, this is the bloke who puts up the cash for Iron Chef. It’s my main objective with exhibitions to show people something they’ve never seen before. Not to convert, just to present something new, expand horizons, so to speak. Creativity is prized above all.
[Sometimes you may want to show an uncreative work next to a creative work to emphasise the specific creativity.]

The average amount of dishes in an offering on Iron Chef is four to five. This allows for a thorough examination of the theme ingredient without diluting the offerings or overwhelming the tasters. It’s not about quantity, it’s about overall impact. Four dishes is usually; an appetiser, maybe a soup/royale, and two heavier dishes. The fifth is usually a desert. Some chefs go for more or less, either a heap of smaller dishes, such as the tuna battle where the challenger presented eight light dishes of tuna in different ways, or a small number of big dishes, such as the chicken battle where the challenger presented only one dish that was well rounded and carried a large impact.
[It’s important to consider the context in regards to quantity/impact. For example, what is the space designed to accommodate, and how can you go against that, if that’s your objective.]

The key for the chefs is the theme ingredient. However, these chefs are really presenting two themes, the theme ingredient, common to both chefs, and their personal theme, an essence of their direction as a chef. This is very similar for a curator, the theme of the exhibition and their own personal approach to exhibiting. For the chefs, showing a variety of angles on the ingredient is key, as well as keeping their personal theme consistent.
[Then again, inconsistency can be a theme in itself, look at the later Iron Chef Japanese Morimoto, he was all over the shop.]

Sometimes the theme ingredient is very niche, perhaps it’s scorpion fish, swallows nest, giant eel. The chef has to assume that a taster hasn’t tried the ingredient before, and craft their dishes accordingly. The first dish must present the flavor of the ingredient untarnished, let the taster know what to look for in the following dishes. It can still be crazy, full of other flavors, colours and textures, but it sets up the rest of the meal and must be acknowledged.
[Or perhaps you want to advertise the theme but present a selection of games that carry the theme subtly, forcing the player to draw the connection with the theme themselves.]

The order is harder to dictate in a games exhibition, but it’s possible to think of it in terms of layout, which are the first to see, which are the first to play, which command the most time/view, which are in smaller places, larger places, gathering spaces, thoroughfare spaces. Just as you’d place a smaller, more intimate game in a smaller more intimate space, you’d place an appetiser before the mains, or the desert at the end.
[Of course you can place an intimate game in the middle of a huge open space, and a desert in the middle of your meal, but you’d present better if you know and acknowledge this. You don’t need to comment or present a statement or any of that art wank, just know what you’re subverting, it shows.]

To go back to quantity-over-impact, it’s important to distinguish between an “appetiser” game and a “main” game. I think the term “impact” sums it up best. In an exhibition setting, multiplayer games have a larger impact, simply by being an experience that engages interaction with the game as well as interaction with other people simultaneously. Some games convey impact through heavy themes or interactions. It’s a good idea to mix high impact games with low impact games, to round out the experience and show other sides of the theme.
[You can subvert this, naturally, but if you decide to show a lot of big impact games consider giving people more physical space around the games to unpack those experiences.]

The overarching link is to create these experiences with the taster/player in mind. At no point can the curator divorce the game from the context of the exhibition. It’s not about showing a bunch of good games, it’s about creating a story through every dish, acknowledging how each individual item affects the surrounding items and forming a holistic experience from the planning stage right through to execution. Put yourself in the place of the average player and construct an amazing time.