Designing Extraordinary Experiences

an interview with
Emilie Baltz Artist, Designer,

After hearing Emilie Baltz speak at a PSFK conference about Lickestra (an orchestra made of ice cream lickers!) I felt compelled to learn more about her and her creative process.  Her ideas were simply too original to ignore and her workspace seemed like a foreign country — I mean how exactly does one get hired to develop a drink experience for the Museum of Sex?  So we talked.  In fact, after my recorder failed the first time, she graciously agreed to chat again resulting in the interview below.   We covered a lot of ground while I circled around my primary question — how could we non-artists be more creative?

Not surprisingly, Emily did not provide a pat answer since originality and creativity are the result of several factors including perspective, process, personality, practice, passion and whole bunch of other things that don’t start with P.  So enjoy the interview and stay tuned for a follow up article that attempts to clarify how we all can (at least try to) be more creative.

Drew: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your interests as an artist?

I work as a food and experience designer as well as an artist and educator, and my interest is primarily in understanding how sensory experience can change our perception of taste. That’s been my focus for the last few years. And I come from a background in screenwriting and industrial design as well as modern dance and photography, so I sort of blend all those experiences like a cook in the kitchen to ultimately bring an idea to life in multiple dimensions.

DrewTo begin discussing the creative process, maybe we could start with Lickestra and you can talk through how it came into being.

Lickestra is a licking ice-cream orchestra. The project was created as a food design and smart object project, developed in collaboration with Carla Diana, who works at the intersection of technology and design, while I work at the intersection of food and design. So Lickestra became a project where we basically poked and tasted and rubbed things together to understand what it was that we wanted to do. We asked ourselves, what if we started to find ways where sound and food could intersect? To do that, we started bringing technology into a variety of food materials, and that included making something that we called a jam band session.

Prototyping led us to discover that the most fun thing you could do was to bite something or use your mouth and then make sound. That was very novel and got a lot of great positive feedback. Through that, we just ended up testing a lot of different materials and realized that here was ice cream, this thing that already had a built-in gestural interface that asked you to lick. From there, it just very easily then developed into Lickestra, where participants got to lick a series of conductive ice cream cones that would trigger different tones and sounds.

Drew: When you’re initially running through ideas, how do you get past that prototyping stage and know how and when to take the next step?
This is where the critical mind comes in to play. It has everything to do with the knowledge of the landscape that you’re in. Some ideas we have, but have already been done, so they’re automatically off the table. Other ideas we come up with are just not as clear in their direction. I think the best ideas are ones that you look at and immediately say, oh yeah, oh duh, that works. That’s the best way I can describe it.

To get there, one needs a process and one needs clarity in the process because the “duh” is really the revelation that all the pieces are fitting together. It’s saying we want to make food and sound come together, we want to make it interactive and physical, we want to be delightful and joyful, we want to make a band. Those are our self-imposed constraints. Then we come up with some ideas and ask ourselves which ones we find more interesting. We usually decide this based on our emotional reaction to them, but the decision also comes from some training and an ability to look at them objectively and decide whether or not an idea actually fits within our constraints that we’ve set. Drawing helps you organize the thoughts and prototyping actually helps you see really what that thought looks like and figure out if it works or doesn’t work.

Drew: Can you talk a little bit about the recent project you created at the bar Play in the Museum of Sex?

We had the idea to give desire a form, which naturally lends itself to food and drink because that’s where we become the most emotional in our consumer habits. The most natural venue for this was a bar. I served as the Art Director for Play and developed the brand and interiors with the Museum of Sex, as well as architect Eric Mailaender and restaurant consultant Brendan Spiro. In addition, I developed an experimental cocktail menu that presented artist crafted cocktails that push our relationship to desire through drink. The first cocktail I developed was with the Dutch London-based artist Bart Hess and called Pareidolia. It’s a black porcelain plate that has a ribbed texture, almost like this alien skin. When I contacted Bart for this project, it was with an interest in looking at gestural interfaces, because I think so much of our sensory communication also comes through literal muscle memory.

When we started working together, I was poking around with him and looking at projects and saw this piece of fabric that he had developed, which is totally alien and very weird looking. We both decided that it was really very interesting, because you naturally sort of wanted to lick it but also didn’t want to lick it. It was so bizarre and alien, you couldn’t really understand what it was, but it was incredibly suggestive as a form. And so part of the intent with Pareidolia was to offer this vessel, and then through its usage what you actually end up seeing is a visual landscape of people bending over and licking, like a piece of performance art.

Though the artist isn’t present, all these guests are engaging in this really intimate action in a public space. And it’s great that it took place at the Museum of Sex, one of the institutions that I think is so interesting because it does allow people the permission to look and now with Play, the permission to act on their desires. This is especially true in American culture, where the topic of sex and sexuality is still continually taboo. It doesn’t have to be weird for it to be fun.`ss in other dimensions and in other work. It’s all about getting perspective.

Drew: Can you talk about the LO.V.E. Foodbook and how that came into being?
The L.O.V.E Foodbook was inspired by working with the Museum of Sex while I’d been researching aphrodisiacs to make a prototype café in the basement called Oral Fix before beginning to work on Play. What was amazing to me during this research was finding that all of the definitions of aphrodisiac were archaic: stories and mythologies about things like Casanova and Greco-Roman times and Montezuma. It seemed to me like we were in a time when we should have new stories and new languages around this idea.

So I ended up working with a French publisher in Paris and proposed this idea that we would make a cookbook that was about love. We put together a list of chefs that we would approach and ask to translate a definition of love in their material: food. That’s how the L.O.V.E. Foodbook was born, consciously chosen to be described as love rather than desire, because I think desire is actually quite linear and love is much more complex and in its complexity much more representative of contemporary culture.

Drew: What are you working on now and what do you see in the near future in terms of artistic endeavors?
I’m most interested in performative pedagogy, a term I’m toying with where the “education” exists as an act, both witnessed and performed by an audience, in which we learn by doing, not simply watching. I believe that education exists everywhere and I’d love to be able to educate people on just how much of an experience taste is, rather than merely flavor. I’ve been doing these more performative dinners. I actually just came back from Stockholm this week with Brooklyn Brewery Chef Andrew Gerson and we held a dinner in a former nuclear reactor.

This is exactly the type of thing I would like to keep doing, because here were these incredible settings and it was completely transformative. You’re totally out of your world and out of your comfort zone. The goal of the night was to create an experience that was fueled by taste and would allow guests to explore not only a part of themselves through ingestion, but also a part of their city that they had never seen before. I think what that does is start to cultivate curiosity. That’s what I hope to do, to cultivate curiosity, because with that you get people who are empathetic, who are playful, who are collaborative and who have interest in others.

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