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IMAGE: Emilie coaching a licker through performance anxiety.

Last week, in a former bodega in Alphabet City, food designer Emilie Baltz and smart object designer Carla Diana conducted the second performance of their “Lickestra” — a “musical licking performance” involving conductive ice cream cones, four volunteers, and a pre-recorded soundtrack of peculiar tones and baselines created by musician Arone Dyer of Buke&Gase.

Lured by the promise of free ice cream (a surprisingly spicy chile hot chocolate from Big Gay Ice Cream), I volunteered as one of the first four unsuspecting performers. We each crawled into a white plinth, crouching in the dark until Emilie invited us, one by one, to rise head and shoulders through the opening, and tune up.

“Know your instrument!” Baltz encouraged, as I tentatively leaned in to lick the ice cream in its white cone holder.

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IMAGE: Empty podium with cone holder.

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IMAGE: Ice cream in position.

A curious tinkling, like one of the lesser-used ring tones on my phone, started, and just as quickly stopped, triggered only when my tongue was touching the ice-cream. My three fellow musicians took their turn discovering their own tones — a Casio-esque organ sequence, a synthetic buzzing and farting, and a standard issue drum track overlaid with a xylophone melody — and then all four of us rose into position and started to play.

With stage lights blinding my eyes and chocolate smudges all over my face (it’s harder to get the ice cream in your mouth when you’re not holding it!), my embarrassment at sticking my tongue out in public battled with my realisation that the more creative I was with my licking technique, the more rhythmically and tonally complex the sounds of my ice cream became. At one point, in a flash of inspiration, I wiggled my tongue from side to side on the ice cream and earned a burst of applause for the resulting arpeggio.

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IMAGE: Lickestra performers.

Later performers seemed more liberated, diving straight into elaborate tongue acrobatics. Some even began to coordinate their licking, consciously bringing their instruments together in an orchestral improvisation. I’m not sure our foursome ever reached that point, but the crowd cheered us on, nonetheless, and I felt like a (very minor) star when I stepped down from the stage.

VIDEO: An iPhone recording that doesn’t do the Lickestra justice, sorry.

When I climbed into my Lickestra podium, I thought of it as a food design stunt — a wonderfully weird gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. But, after having to concentrate on the act of licking under spotlights for five minutes, I realised that Lickestra is actually a very clever piece of experience design, carefully nudging each performer to become conscious of the balletic range and possibility of their tongue as the primary instrument through which they interact with ice cream.

The sound, despite being billed as the central element of the experience, was actually just a prop, designed to help us discard our deeply embedded sense of public ice cream-eating etiquette and play with the gestural vocabulary of our tongues as they conveyed food to our mouths. The resulting experience was fun, funny, and a little uncomfortable, but also extremely thought-provoking — after all, if changing the material our spoons are made of can shift our taste perceptions, it seems likely that designing new choreographies for our tongues, lips, and hands while eating could have a similarly transformative effect.*

Perhaps unsurprisingly, another of Baltz’s recent projects was curating the cocktail menu at the Museum of Sex’s new bar, PLAY. “The idea for Lickestra definitely drew on my work there,” Baltz explained later. “Because they’re on stage, everyone immediately thinks, ‘I need to lick really well’ — but what does that actually mean?”

A very good question indeed!

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IMAGE: Lickestra performer.

*While travelling in China last month, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the tongue/teeth coordination required to strip the meat and cartilage from the bone while eating things like ducks’ tongues or chicken feet is not simply the extra work that is unfortunately required in order to eat all parts of the animal, but rather an extended oral experience that actually contributes to the flavour of the dish.

Thanks to gelato aficionado Alissa Walker for the tip!

UPDATE: This video of Lickestra by MOLD includes an interview with Emilie Baltz and Carla Diana, as well as a small cameo by me. With ice-cream on my face.