Twice a month, artist Arianna Davalos has a dinner party for strangers in her modest San Francisco studio apartment. Participants bring something to contribute to a potluck dinner and the menu comes together randomly. The Stranger Dinner is part social experiment and part social practice, a strand of contemporary art-making that is predicated on interaction. Davalos began the project three years ago in Seattle by inviting friends to extend invitations to their friends. She has been presenting the project in San Francisco for the last year and has since promoted the project on public online calendars, such as Happenstand. The first five strangers to respond, over email, are reserved a seat at the table.
I attended a dinner recently with strangers Stephanie, Stephen, Tavi, Irene, and host Davalos. The experience reminded me of foreign travel, from corresponding with an unfamiliar person to navigating through new neighborhoods. Also, while traveling abroad it would be commonplace to have dinner with locals I met that day, though I would never think to do so at home. I am at a loss when I try to explain this logic, but I am not alone: some of the dinner conversation touched on this innate double standard. Though we were each a bit shy in our initial conversation, talk flowed to all sorts of topics from the significance of names to homeopathy to street shootings to Judaism to Burning Man to psychotherapy to silent Buddhist meditation retreats to, ultimately, the slippery concept of social interaction-as-artwork.
While I might have expected all of the participants would arrive at the dinner familiar with this type of artwork, if not steeped in it as I am, a few hadn't initially understood that Davalos considered the project art. Davalos, who studied art under Joe Scanlan and Jessica Stockholder at Yale, spoke earnestly about being interested in the "stranger dinners" for the sake of human exchange. She was also resolute about wanting to be present in the experience, thus eschewing documentation such as photography or video. When it was suggested that she could do more to think about the work in terms of marketing, perhaps suggesting that it be monetized somehow, she only murmured that this "wasn't what the work was about." (Donations are suggested to cover the cost of libations; otherwise commerce is markedly absent from the project. As such it offers a counter-economic critique, organized in the spirit of a gift economy.) The ensuing discussion around this was a little uncomfortable, cloaked as it was in the polite rhetoric of strangers who may not have understood one another. One person asserted that she didn't think that people would be interested in the project as an artwork per se, but that it would appeal more to those "interested to meet other people under somewhat awkward circumstances." It suggested a self-awareness that was startling to me before I conceded that all travelers must share this unexpected predilection on some level. And it was evident that travel was a common thread among participants, at least on this night.
When talking about her work, Davalos says, "Art has always been a kind of feeling for me, like the experience of looking at a gorgeous sunset. I want to chase that feeling and try to find a way to let other people feel that feeling." These sentiments, along with the open source "instructions" for planning "stranger dinners" available on her website, convey the generosity at the core of the artist's particular brand of social practice and her abiding interest to create a set of circumstances and opportunities for response. Certainly this chance encounter with strangers, perhaps most memorable in its awkwardness, will continue to resonate as the stuff of art, long after a cache of beautiful and unremarkable sunsets has blurred in my memory.
The Stranger Dinner happens the second and fourth Sunday of every month. To join the mailing list and receive announcements for upcoming dinners visit strangerdinner.org.