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Eating great food and taking in great art while simultaneously making friends around the world sounds like what I want to be when I grow up. A friend of mine introduced me to Slideluck  by describing it as "an art show…local photographers present their work on a big slideshow and everyone brings a dish to share...like a potluck dinner. They do it all around the world. Tonight it's in Brooklyn. Want to come?” I agreed, envisioning some store brought hummus laid out on a table next to a few lone photographs in someone's dank apartment. I was wrong. The Brooklyn Bridge provided the perfect backdrop to an open air warehouse in Dumbo filled with people, an abundance of food, and a large screen.  In fact, that particular event won a place in the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records for the largest potluck ever thrown (479 dishes - dayum!).Inspired by his love for food, traveling and art, New York City resident and photographer Casey Kelbaugh, created Slideluck twelve years ago out of the DIY ethos of Seattle, Washington. Shaped out of a desire to build community and provide an artistic outlet for local photographers, Slideshow has evolved into a non-profit organization which produces international events centered around art and food. Kelbaugh and his team have traveled around the world; producing events in cities as diverse as Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Nairobi, Kenya, as well as various cities within the US.  In addition to producing events, the organization created a youth initiative to empower young people through photography as well as a green initiative, which focuses on making their events as close to zero waste as possible. Project Inkblot spoke with Casey about his love for traveling, the occasional exclusionary world of photography, and why there will probably not be a Slideluck in Dubai anytime soon.

When did you first develop a love for traveling?

Before I was doing Slideluck and before I was even a photographer, I was really into travel. I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and I ended up living with two Italian architecture students who were about 6 yrs older than me. I was 19 at the time.  They had dinner parties almost every night and they taught me how to cook. I learned the power of bringing people together around food. There was jazz and food and wine and really interesting people coming together on a nightly basis. That started for me the love of travel and the love of cooking, and the idea that food could be this catalyst for bringing people together.

Is that where you became interested in photography, as well?

…I became interested in photography when I was traveling in Tokyo…I heard about a photo workshop; so I went to it and I thought, wow this is amazing. It’s immediate, you’re engaged, you can help create the moment, and it’s interactive...I spent a year there trying to learn the craft. I had plans to continue to travel around the world and then in one week, my camera was stolen, I ran out of money, and I got malaria, and I was like 'ok, time to go home to Seattle and re-group'…around 1999 I was starting my own career and that’s when I started to get frustrated by the lack of outlets to show my work.

Because you felt the photography world was exclusionary?

There are a lot of different photo worlds; the editorial world, shooting for magazines, there’s the commercial world, the fine art world, and there are very steep pyramids where there is no access…especially when you’re starting out. It’s like, ‘ok one day I’ll show at this gallery’ but how do I talk to people now and get feedback and show my work? So I created Slideluck in my tiny backyard in Seattle. About 50 people showed up and everyone was really jazzed and we had an old photo projector and some music. It went really well and people were like, ‘when’s the next one?’

Lots of people, when they are creating something with momentum, speak of that moment where they know they’re on to something big. Did you feel that way?

I felt a little bit of that leading up to it, but I had no idea I’d move to New York. I was thinking of doing something fun that allowed me to take control and do something for the people, not waiting for it to happen. There was a very amazing DIY spirit in the art community in Seattle and I think Slideluck grew out of that. It grew very slowly and organically and in three years we did 20 shows in Seattle. No press, no big nothing. It was all very underground.

I moved to NY for my photo career. Slideluck was a hobby. I got here and I felt that same kind of void but I thought, 'no one in New York is going to want to do a potluck dinner'...but we decided to do the first one in my apartment, and it was packed.

In New York everything is very established and there’s a lot of commerce involved with the art world especially. Slideluck was always meant to be divorced from commerce - very much a celebration of art and creativity and community. I tried very hard to keep money out of it completely for a very long time but it just got to the point where we had to cover costs. I wanted it to be like, your potluck dish is your ticket.

How many people showed up?

About 150 people, which was bigger than the biggest show we had had in Seattle. People were hungry for this kind of authentic engagement and for the opportunity to show their work and get feedback, and the content was very good. We were like, we’re definitely doing it again but we need a bigger place. We found a studio in Soho and it was a really beautiful space that was twice as big and twice as exciting…the energy was electric.

In New York everything is very established and there’s a lot of commerce involved with the art world especially. Slideluck was always meant to be divorced from commerce - very much a celebration of art and creativity and community. I tried very hard to keep money out of it completely for a very long time but it just got to the point where we had to cover costs. I wanted it to be like, your potluck dish is your ticket.

What do you think people were so excited about?

It all goes back to authenticity for me. You don’t just buy a ticket. You’re actually getting your hands dirty and making something you care about or making a family recipe and that makes you a bit more invested. So everyone is helping to build and create the night. And every night is unique because it’s always in a different location, the people are different, the theme is different, the food is different so every event is bound by this common structure…yet we’ve managed to maintain that backyard potluck vibe. It hasn’t taken on the art world pretension. It’s always been really warm and friendly.

Being able to travel through Slideluck must be a dream.

Yeah, I would say that. It’s different than backpacking. Backpacking is a fantastic way to get out and meet all of these interesting people but often you’re meeting people from all of these other countries and then you’re all on the outside looking in. The difference with this is that all of our growth has been by demand. So if a place like Tel Aviv or Bogota approaches us because they want to do a Slideluck, we build it together…it’s the most exciting way to travel because we go in and we’re building something that is totally new and everyone is so excited and we’re meeting all of these creative people. It’s not a one off - it becomes a part of the community. It’s been amazing. It’s changed my concept of what travel can be.

Have you found that certain cultures are more receptive or less receptive to the idea? Have you faced any obstacles in regards to that?

Well, in terms of reception, after every Slideluck someone will come up and say thank you so much we’ve never had something like this before and I guess you could say, that is the biggest reward. A Potluck is a Native American tradition – it’s called a “Potlatch” and it comes from the Seattle area actually, on the Northwest coast. The first year in Berlin this woman showed up with a head of lettuce and I’m like,' what’s this? And she’s like it’s a salad and I’m like, it’s not a salad, it’s a limp head of lettuce' [laughs]. Amsterdam was very interesting - we had a potluck curator and everyone arrived with dishes and everything was laid out so beautifully…I was talking to people and I was like, ‘do you all do a lot of potlucks?’ and they’re like ‘we’ve never heard of it [until now]' and they totally communicated what it was about but it was a brand new experience for everyone in the room, so that was interesting.

Then there was the Middle East; my dad lived in Dubai for a couple of years and I tried to have a Slideluck there and it’s just not going to happen.

Why?

Because, traditionally, [in many Middle Eastern cultures] when you host people you spend your last dime so that there is so much food that no one in a million years would ever be able to finish it, but to ask people to bring something is almost offensive. To say 'ok, come over but you have to bring stuff as well'…it just doesn’t fly.

Is that what you envision? A Slideluck in every city in the world?

I’d love to see it spread that way…we haven’t been able to accommodate it in that way. We’d love for it to be de-centralized so that more people are a part of it. We’re re-launching our website so that each city can have their own page. It will be a lot more accessible and easier to control.

This project has taught me that with commitment, comes great reward. I have made this project a priority for 12 years. Had I continued to bounce around, dabbling here and there, I don’t think I would have been able to make the impact Slideluck has made. I learned that nothing worthwhile comes easy.

What have you learned from the process of creating this organization?

I think I had a tough time committing to what type of medium I wanted to work in, then what type of photographer I wanted to be, then whether I could stay in one place.  This project has taught me that with commitment, comes great reward.  I have made this project a priority for 12 years.  Had I continued to bounce around, dabbling here and there, I don’t think I would have been able to make the impact Slideluck has made. I learned that nothing worthwhile comes easy.  There have been some very tough moments in this process – financially, emotionally, creatively – but throwing in the towel has never been an option.  I think the longer I stuck with it, the more crystallized this feeling was.

The other thing I have learned is that people are willing to go to great lengths for something they believe in.  At this particular moment, there are teams of individuals volunteering their time and resources to make Slidelucks happen in San Francisco, London, Bogotá, Dallas, Atlanta, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam and Washington, DC.  All of whom are doing this on their own volition and because they want to make their community a better place.  The mere fact that this is happening blows my mind.

What were some of your favorite Slidelucks?

That’s hard. Nairobi was way up there…400 people showed up, beautiful weather. It was a really mixed, interesting crowd…the work was all local and we even had some paintings so we had a really older generation as well as young people. Panama City was also amazing, we were in the ruins of a 400 year-old church and it was in the old part of town and we were bbq’ing and we had a really packed house and great vibe. [Our] second show in Baltimore was phenomenal. We got this funky space and we had a really beautiful photo exhibition. There was a live Delta blues band afterwards, there was a bonfire. The work was great, the food was great. Someone set off 17,000 firecrackers. And then there was the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art also hanging out so it was a good mix.

To view photos from Slideluck Nairobi, click here.

It must be great to attract such a wide range of people who otherwise might not mix.

Oh yeah, totally. War photographers and fashion photographers…these people do not hang out. It’s a very mixed group…it just gets boring when it’s the same people. We did one in Toronto where we had really important curators who picked really important photographers. We didn’t do an open call due to a timing thing and it was the most boring show we’ve ever had. It was so predictable. Everyone had already worked together and it didn’t have that random element of chance and that excitement of opportunity.

Would you say that random aspect is what makes the events so good?

Yeah, I mean we’ll never do that again. There has to be an element of an open call. Sure, the curator can pick some of the artists but there has to be an opportunity for anyone to come out of the woodwork.

What do you want people to walk away with after a Slideluck event?

I want people to feel engaged and inspired and I think that’s a lot of what happens. People are energized. They walk away like, 'holy shit'. The events are very educational. You learn a lot about a lot of little worlds and what’s going on in the world during the show. So I think if people walk away feeling more grounded in their community and more connected, if they feel inspired creatively and intellectually, and if they’ve made new friends, then that’s the goal.

For more information on Casey Kelbaugh, click here.

For more information on Slideluck, click here.

Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Slideluck Potshow

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