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Colectivo Mini-mal

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Oct 27, 2011
Location: Ecuador
Topic: Interview to Mini-mal
Interviewer: Sonja Janousek

LatinArt:  This interview was motivated by a desire to know more about an economic initiative (mini-mal is a business) that seeks to strengthen Colombian socio-cultural and environmental identity using art as a strategy. It is considered that mini-mal’s more than 10 years of experience, serve not only as good example, but as a source of learning for individuals and organizations looking to contribute to the sustainable development of the planet.
What is mini-mal?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Eduardo: Well, physically, today it is a restaurant, two design stores, an art gallery and a pastry shop.
Manuel: It’s also a catering and banquet service. mini-mal means to create while minimizing the negative impact or damage. We recognize that human beings cause damage. This is important, because sometimes we treat environmental and ecological issues within a purist context that only generates extreme and conflictive positions. For example, the history of natural parks and their conservation efforts has sought to isolate nature from man. But in Colombia, and in many places in Latin America, what often makes a place sustainable is the presence of an Indigenous or Afro community that provides resistance to industrialization projects. They conserve (nature) and live from the ecosystem. Many environmental policies seek to save indigenous communities and farmers and leave nature untouched…and this generates social conflicts that completely disrespect the people who have been in these places for many years. This policy seems reactionary to us… like we are good and they are bad. We recognize the damage that we do, but, we believe that there is a way to reduce the negative impact and that there is a relationship we can establish with nature through design. For us, design is a form of thinking, because it is not the economic rational, rather it’s the sensitivity that will make the chair attractive, and combine design with something spiritual or aesthetic. Therefore, mini-mal means to make generating the least amount of negativity possible, using resources sustainably, (which means) working with what we have, recognizing that we are establishing a relationship of survival or of …(pause); you would have to invent another word. It wouldn’t be consumption, rather, it would be using resources towards conservation.

LatinArt:  How did mini-mal begin?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Eduardo: We began mini-mal because we worked with farmers and we found that cultural change really has a place in the city because all the racist terms like poor person and campecho (poor rural inhabitant) come from the economic centers. And food plays a big role in the validation and de-valuation of a culture. It is an opportunity to reaffirm, or, it can be the vehicle through which a culture becomes impoverished. Coming from a place with an incredible gastronomic tradition, I understand that what communities have learned from their ecosystem and what has been passed down from generation to generation, has neither been valued nor has it generated a sense of pride. I think that from all of this comes a little of the original idea of the project. The project is not only us there is a collective behind it as well as the more ancient story of Equilibrio Foundation.
Manuel: We could say that everything has been luck… that Eduardo was studying agronomy and that I was an artist. They are coincidences, but they are very significant because it has a lot to do with the strategy that we use. When cultural distortion exists, you are not aware of your sensible and direct reality, rather you are aware of an ideal image that is perhaps, like, New York City. The way to break this is through art in the sense that, art is not a direct conceptual strategy like politics. (Politics) promises you freedom or it promises you wealth, but it is not a direct fact. Art is a direct strategy. When you eat a piece of fruit, it is a direct experience. There may be interpretations, but through that empirical experience you can break meanings.

LatinArt:  What is the goal mini-mal?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Eduardo: I think there is one central thing that unites all of us and that is to propose a reference of our own identity, both in the design and the food. We worry that the references aren’t being constructed by us but, that they come from outside Colombia. Within the design community the establishment generally awards the designer that achieves to make something look Italian.
Manuel: Actually, when we opened the store in Bogota, we were one of only a few places that opened its doors to Colombian designers searching for their own design aesthetic. We think that we can generate culture. For this reason, the goal of mini-mal is to become a reference point. Because yes, it is possible to make high level Colombian cuisine and design that proposes new ideas and investigates local traditions. We do not want to standardize Colombian cuisine, we want to go beyond standards and develop something creative. The important thing is not to repeat what has already been done. We have references from Europe, Asia, and we are not closing those doors, but the final decision for a recipe is ours, and must correspond to the realities of our context.

LatinArt:  Tell me a bit about the outcomes of mini-mal, both foreseen and unforeseen.

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Eduardo: Based on the original intention, it is satisfying to know what mini-mal has achieved in becoming a reference within our contemporary Colombian identity, at least at the local level. I think that we have helped encourage a certain movement, for example previously, cooking publications never talked about Colombian cuisine. Also, we have helped to validate the idea that sustainable development is an opportunity. Yes, you can generate business and yes you can generate cultural projects. I feel that (mini-mal) has validated many other initiatives. Manuel, in the case of the design store, has motivated a lot of other people. For example many of our early providers, now have their own store.
Manuel: For us it is satisfying to know that the project has not had to make many concessions because there is always pressure to compromise. We could say that, at first it was all intuition and then bit-by-bit we strengthened the concept, as well as the pedagogical part and our communication. There are many things that I would not have imagined 10 years ago, and that means that it has been a creative project.

LatinArt:  Could you comment on the work you did in October 2011 at the Franja Arte-Comunidad residence in the coastal community of Engabao in Ecuador?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Eduardo: In micro-political terms mini-mal’s aim was to explore new identity references based on valuing what’s already at hand, specifically the local food that’s sold and consumed at the local market, and highlighting the wealth of local varieties, particularly the seafood that fishermen bring in. Our aim was strengthened all the more when we saw that the idea that’s been sold to the local population in terms of providing tourism services has led to the standardization of the form and type of service to be provided. We corroborated this in various ways: for instance efforts have been made to ensure the architecture and furnishings of the tourist accommodations in Puerto Engabao are all the same. The architecture tacitly ignores traditional building methods using cane. The cuisine tends to amount to fried fish fillets with fried banana (verde frito) and rice, which is highly paradoxical in a population that draws on a rich variety of seafood for its traditional Creole cuisine, which is very tasty and of high quality.
By and large mini-mal’s intervention sought to highlight and value local traditions and idiosyncrasies to continue attracting visitors to Engabao to enjoy not only its natural beauty, but to enrich their experience through contact with a culture that is proud of its traditions and appreciates them.
In aesthetic terms our idea was to break away from that standardized approach to food and architecture through small actions designed to question it, such as by painting different kinds of fish on the facades of the lodging houses, or through carefully prepared presentations of the dishes eaten by the local population, designed to encourage a new-found appreciation of the local and aesthetic cuisine that has fallen into disuse, perhaps because it’s considered too everyday or normal.
Culinary workshops were held to help service providers hone their cooking skills and improve attention to visitors, by sharing a common interest in talking about and highlighting the possibilities to be found in local ingredients and cuisine in order to add greater value to the local flavors and culture. We therefore set up creative workshops based on the use of local ingredients and focusing on cocktail-making, fish recipes and dish presentation to boost confidence in local expertise and resources. These creative workshops led to greater confidence in broadening the range of dishes by working with the ingredients at hand.

LatinArt:  Tell me about your experience using art in a development project?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Manuel: Yes, this topic is always a little difficult because one thing is the artistic objective and the other is the artistic experience, so it generates confusion. Also the productive lens in many projects is tenacious. One thinks that the problem in a community is resolved because they increase productivity by a certain amount…because they produce more rice, more cocoa, and more banana. However, the problem is structured in how we perceive ourselves. A community that has confidence in itself, organizes itself and resolves their problems without need for someone else to tell them what they need. The problem is that our vision has been so limited. Obviously there are a lack of opportunities, but, an organized community that recognizes their values can do something about that. I am telling you all this because art has to do with this process of "how do I perceive my reality?" Art is a good mechanism to raise awareness. For example, I can do everything to tell you that mango juice is really good, but my best argument is that you try it. And in this aesthetic space, that has to do with direct contact with tastes, smells and forms, you can achieve an impact. Educational processes in general are implemented as a result of the concept and not the experience. Another example, we want to know a country, so we’re told things that we probably never imagined, but we can’t go visit these places. However, bring a fruit, or an ingredient and this generates a whole other level of understanding that is not conceptual in terms of rational thought, but is aesthetic. It is an experience that one makes through direct contact with their senses. So, on these terms, the processes that we undertake are important, because it doesn’t serve at all to say that Colombian food is good…until you try a plate you don’t know. So art, in principal, is a strategy that goes directly to breaking prejudices, to generating experiences and renewing affective connections with the context. It is not only entertainment.

LatinArt:  Tell me about your clients. And, what is the interaction with the client like?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Manuel: All types of clients, middle class, students, professionals, people from cultural and political sectors, and artists in general come here. A diverse public visits our restaurant and we want them to know a lot about the ingredients. There is always a high level of communication, as we want to raise awareness. If you try a fruit that looks good and then I tell you that it comes from the Amazon, it is more likely that you will support conservation efforts in the Amazon or at least, that you stop thinking about it as an inhospitable or aggressive place. If the plate has a sophisticated taste, you start to realize that there is a culture that doesn’t only have primitive knowledge, but values that deserve to be respected. This direct contact gives you the esthetic experience and the stories that we tell, become an educational process. People come to our restaurant because it is good, but also because of its purpose to define identity and culture.

LatinArt:  As a foreigner, if I walk into your restaurant, what Colombian identity am I going to find?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Manuel: Firstly, it is not identity like a form, such as a hat or typical outfit because that is a formal identity. (Rather) it is an identity where you appreciate the biodiversity in the product. You will not find a typical plate. What you will find are a lot of ingredients. And that is going to tell you that this country is a bio-diverse country. Then you will find plates from many cultures and nourished by many cultures. This is identity. And then you are going to see that everything is presented in a creative manner. All of these elements become an attitude that generates a notion of identity.

LatinArt:  What factors have helped the project? What factors have limited the project?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Manuel: Well, culture can be limiting because if you have to compete with something that is more recognized because it is European that can be difficult. Also, many ingredients used in the menu can be relatively expensive. Something that has helped the project is that we love it, the affective part is always important for the success of any project. (Also) we are not an isolated community, there are other people in the world that identify with the project and they promote it within and outside of the country (for example the Slow Food community). But in the big picture (what has helped the project) is our attitude. Although we are obviously not 100% sustainable, nor 100% environmentally friendly, we are always trying to reach these goals whenever possible and little by little with time we are filling those gaps.

LatinArt:  And, if you could start over, what would you change?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Manuel: That is really difficult (to answer)….confidence I think, to have had less doubt. But there is no way to know. I wouldn’t know what to change because when I think of something, I think that perhaps it was a necessary experience.

LatinArt:  And if tomorrow I want to start a mini-mal here in Ecuador, what advice would you give me?

Colectivo Mini-mal:  Manuel: Confidence in general, if you have an idea you should do what you need to do (to put it in practice). We made mistakes many times: going places that weren’t correct, working with institutions in the wrong moment, etc. It is a mistake, but you always learn. And really, it isn’t a mistake if you learn from it.
Eduardo: We have worked on this project for 10 years and I think that part of our motivation, even though it has to do with wealth, has always been seeking a different type of wealth. We aren’t looking for economic efficiency in our project. We never thought of it like that. Every time that we proposed something profitable, it has always been with a focus on well-being. In some way, this has guaranteed the existence of the project.

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