Gabriel Newman has just come out of one of his favourite restaurants, his heart still beating as he tries to sell his latest idea.
His pitch: Provide a lunch that you would serve at a funeral reception. Oh, and do it for free.
The request may seem a little far-fetched to a business trying to make a living rather than serve up obligatory finger sandwiches, but it’s all part of a social experiment that Newman is offering through the auspices of the Vernon Public Art Gallery.
And so far, he has received ––pardon the pun–– a few bites.
“My work is hard to pitch. What’s attractive depends on who you are,” deadpans Newman.
The free food is part of Newman’s latest project, the Funeral Café, where members of the community will sit down to lunch provided at the art gallery. The catch is whoever attends must share a story they would either tell about a loved one or they would like to be heard about themselves –– at a funeral.
Their stories will be recorded for the VPAG installation, which will remain open throughout the day to that spectators can come in, listen to the recorded stories, and in exchange, record their own stories.
“It was Thomas King (author of The Truth About Stories) who said ‘The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,’” said Newman on why he has chosen to record people’s “eulogies” and share them with the community.
“We give high status to the written word, to filmmakers, but I think the most important stories take place at the performance venue we have in each of our homes, the dinner table. It’s what we do when we get together with family that’s really important… I am just celebrating the skills we already have and that we value.
“A lot of us already have an empty relationship with our computers. This way we can have meaningful relationship with people at the café.”
This isn’t the first time Newman has attempted to engage the community in telling its stories.
Last year, as part of his thesis for his master’s in fine arts at UBC Okanagan, Newman came up with the Social Potluck, where he invited people of all social strata to dinner. The fee was that they were asked to share a story –– any story.
People spoke on a wide variety of topics, which Newman attempted to unspool for his thesis –– not an easy task, he said.
“The thing about these events is that we are not sure what story they are going to tell. We don’t have any bearings and there is no wrong story or gesture. The deal is to just deliver a story,” said Newman.
“We got a mixture — a lot of neat experiences and it attracted interesting people.
“It’s why I don’t like to charge anything for people to participate, so I can open the door to everyone. It’s why I want to make it a community project.”
Although he has narrowed the topic slightly for the Funeral Café, the whole idea is for people to still gather around a table and communicate their deepest desires and thoughts, and become part of an aural historical record of what it means to be community.
“In a weird way I’ve cheated.. I wanted to do the Social Potluck, but with a topic,” said Newman. “I picked a topic that is broad, but one that you can run with. I’ve left the funeral aspect wide open. It’s a topic; a place to start.”
And as he is also the host of the highly successful Ghost Tours of Vernon, Newman has an admitted fascination with death.
“In North America we are standoffish about death and some may be nervous to tell stories with that topic in mind. (However,) I think it’s when our lives are derailed that we feel truly alive. And nothing derails our lives more than death.”
Besides a place to nosh and share a story, the Funeral Café will remain open during its installation at the VPAG from Oct. 18 to Dec. 21. All of the gathered recordings and transcriptions from the participants will be in turn incorporated in the narratives about funerals and performed by Newman in successive performances at the gallery.
Newman adds he is grateful to the VPAG, and specifically to curator Lubos Culen, as well as to local restaurants Crush Bistro and Bamboo Beach Grill (a third restaurant is TBA, while Newman plans to prepare a meal himself) for allowing him to share his experiment with the public.
“Hats off to them… It is sort of a crazy idea,” he laughed.
The first Funeral Café takes place Oct. 15, and will run thereafter on Oct. 31, Nov. 17 and Dec. 1. There is only room for six people at each luncheon.
Those interested in participating can contact Newman by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-260-8757.