Artist Catherine Aiello is examining the nature of power in the restaurant industry, in “Power and Service,” an online exhibit at the Washington Street Art Center. In 2016, Aiello took on a job in a café, began to reassess the world around her. It was her immersion in this business that inspired her virtual exhibit.
“Once I started working in food, I started seeing things that I hadn’t thought about or noticed before,” Aiello tells Scout, “I’d go into a restaurant and be looking and seeing – what are they doing, how are they working, who’s working where, how is their system different from ours.”
“When I took this job and started thinking about what does it mean to be working in the service industry, I started thinking about the ways we think about power in society…I realized that I could have power in a situation, the power to put people at ease and the power we have in shaping worker relationships in that environment.”
As an artist, Aiello works with drawings, textiles, and prints, employing the imagery of objects found in the restaurant space. She brings into focus the intricacies that are traditionally overlooked, the straw wrappers, the croissants, the utensils.
The exhibition is divided into several different projects, including “Work Snacks,” a tiny, reversible zine, “Windows In, Windows Out,” shedding light on the invisible world of kitchens, and “Caviar Support,” a series of drawings, inspired by a fluke misunderstanding with the food delivery app Caviar.
In “Approved Headwear/Approved Face Coverings,” Aiello worked with artist Tommy Driscoll to take photographs of her coworkers wearing bandanas she designed, a nod to the Covid-19 virus.
The project “Strange Times, Homemade Signs” recreated signs that restaurants put up during the pandemic, featuring the intimate copying of the sign makers’ handwriting. Aiello said that the spread of the virus has left its mark on the service industry.
“People felt a lot of mixed feelings. It was a relief in some ways, to get a rest. It’s a hard and demanding industry. To suddenly be laid off or furloughed gave people this anxiety about what to do about money but also what do I want to do in my life right now, what’s possible for me,” said Aiello. “It took people out of their routines.”
Aiello said that she hopes to call attention to the things that we do not usually notice, making the invisible seen. Restaurants have a world of their own and frequently even develop their own languages, or ways of communicating very quickly.
She observed small details and rituals that create the culture of the café, paying attention to the tickets used by servers and the ways that workers organize their spaces. Working in the restaurant industry has given her a unique perspective, Aiello said.
“There is a privilege in just knowing any kind of insider knowledge,” said Aiello. Being able to enter a space and being able to know something about a different world, whether it’s expected in the wider culture or not.”
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