As the one and only art work for our section in the collaborative exhibition Constant Consumer, Stephanie Chu’s hand-drawn style animation Coffee precisely and sarcastically expresses the shared attitude of our team members towards the basic daily consumption we encounter in our everyday lives that while being a member of the mass culture and consuming what have been provided to us, we are also being consumed by a well-designed commercial plot that repeats itself everyday.
As an undergraduate student majored in animation at the SAIC, Stephanie’s experience of participating in artistic events as an artist was quite limited. Before our collaboration, Stephanie perceived that animation was more similar to be working as a designer than as an artist, since both animator and designer are more real life consumption related that the trace of their works could be easily find in our daily lives such as the animation children enjoy as their after-school entertainment, and the design that we could encounter everywhere–the furniture we have at home, our cells, cars, clothes etc.. However, resulting from the development of our project and many forms of conversation through email, cell phone message, and in person. It is not too hard to realize the evolution of her self-consciousness about being an artist as one who utilizes animation as a medium
to express herself. Along our journey, we had two similar conversations with Stephanie, one was at the very beginning of our collaboration, and the other one was pretty recent. While we were finishing up our project, I asked her whether or not she thought herself as an artist/ art producer. At first, she gave a negative response to this question, and told me how she considered herself more like a designer. The second time when I intentionally asked her the same questions, the young artist surprised me all over again without any hesitation. “The debate of what exactly is or isn’t art happens all the time when I look at contemporary work. And a lot of what people make in this school as well. Is it art that they making or is it just that they make up so much stuff about it that they can convince other people what they’ve made, even if it’s literally a piece of crap, is indeed art. In terms of my work i do think I’ve created something that I could consider art.”
As we moved along with our collaboration with Stephanie I have perceived myself as the middle person between her and our team. I have tried to focus on fostering the projection of herself as a growing artist and think about her work in an artistic context instead of just being an animator.
In terms of the other part of my focus on our project, I did research on summarizing the similarities of those figures who were considered by Stephanie as inspirations of her work. Those figures range from professors who brought her to the field of animation step by step to established mainstream animators who have established public reputations. Stephanie has tried to balance features from both groups of animators. The technique she learnt at SAIC, without any high-tech software instead emphasizes rough edged, hand-drawn expression and her independent attitude. The sarcastic but humorous narrative which she indicates was derived from famous animators, such as Chuck Jones, the creator of “Looney Tunes” could also be seen at this short animation that we have presented in our exhibition.
After all, the collaboration facilitated by our curatorial class at SAIC could very much be considered as a success for both our team and Stephanie. Among the things that we have learnt during the progress, I find myself cherishing our relationship with our artist the most. A mutual respectful and collaborative understanding facilitated our success, and also brought us valuable memories from our experience.
Emily Elizabeth Thomas
On Curatorial Process & Reflections
CONSTANT CONSUMER —>EATING PROSTHETICS
In collaboration with Deborah Boardman’s Curatorial Practice course my curatorial partner, Ariel Fang, and I dedicated a semester to programming, curating and facilitating the creation of Constant Consumer, a student-curated show in the LeRoy Neiman Center. Constant Consumer is an exhibition concerned with the various ways in which modern consumption affects the lives of the consumer.
In our section of the show we showcased the work of the following talented artists:
David Kim, BFA 2013
Elizabeth Merritt Kong, BFA 2013
Bhagya Ajikumar, MFA 2004
Amy Deneselya, BFA 2013
Jennifer Kaplan, BFA 2014
Nancy Sayavong, BFA 2014
Jason Guo, BFA 2014
Nicole Kaufman, BFA 2014
Christine Lai, BFA 2013
SunMin Park, BFA 2014
Stephania Dulowski, BFA 2014
Sky White, BFA 2014
Therese Harrah, BFA 2014
We received images, statements and dimensions of each proposed work from the individual artists through an open call that was sent out to the SAIC community.
Constant Consumer Open Call
Posted to Facebook on October 26th
The Curatorial Practice course, with Deborah Boardman, in conjunction with SUGs Project spaces is looking for cup forms that are created to facilitate daily consumption. The cups can be made from any material – ceramic, wood, fabric, plastic – but needs to suggest utility beyond a single use.
The selected pieces will be curated into a larger exhibition titled “The Constant Consumer”, focusing on dilemmas and evolution of contemporary production and consumption. The works will be exhibited specifically in the storefront window space in the LeRoy Neiman Center, 37 S. Wabash, from November 18 through December 9.
Please send a 2-3 sentence artist statement, a resume or cv, and 1-5 images to email@example.com with the subject heading “The Constant Consumer Open Call” by 10/31 @ 11pm.
After the installation of Constant Consumer Ariel and I, in collaboration with student graphic designers Sky White and Therese Harrah, began the extensive process of creating a publication showcasing both the curatorial process of Constant Consumer and additional research, starting a conversation that runs parallel to the exhibition.
The publication Eating Prosthetics: methods of daily consumption became our way of commemorating the exhibition, and beginning a discussion on the historical weight and allegorical meaning of the prosthetics we use for eating, the human eating prosthetic.
It became our goal to provide a moment of reflection for the consumer in which they are presented with the opportunity to think differently about their own consumption, to think differently about the fork they hold in their hand.
Selections from Eating Prosthetics
This book came about through a series of curatorial projects and events, starting with a focus on coffee. At the Storefront’s Blend: Discourse by the Cup local coffee was disguised and served to visitors while viewing coffee related documentaries. Conversation on both the healing attributes of coffee culture, and the faulted morality of foreign coffee production, and the space between these opposing views, led to a larger conversation about the physical act of coffee-drinking and its affect on the consumer, all filtered through the coffee-mug-vessel that facilitates the consumption of the dark brew. Our interest in eating and drinking vessels lead to some interesting interpretations of the significance of the coffee mug- even when an individual is not necessarily drinking coffee the moment of consumption continues in the process of holding, picking up, and even washing the cup.
The seemingly endless cycle of human interpretation of use and value – the constant consumer – was what interested us.
An open call was sent out to the SAIC community asking for student and artist participation in an exhibition centered around objects that implied more than one use, more than one purpose of physical consumption. The Constant Consumer showed works that flatten the hierarchy between utensil and art object, works that commented on the complications of daily consumption, and works that reflect a portion of the artists’ character.
This interest in how these contingent prosthetics of eating informs the consumer’s conception of value led to a parallel conversation around the historical weight of the utensils themselves. Eating Prosthetics is the result of this interest, explored further from a historical standpoint.
Instead of creating a strictly academic publication on the history of utensils we decided it would be beneficial to exhibit how knowledge of items that facilitate eating can be reinterpreted into design that facilitates understanding. There is a hope that in some way this book would be an object consumed in order to affect viewer’s perception of consumption and in turn possibly change their understanding of their own production.
It is our hope that although we are constant-consumers, we may offer assistance in creating a conscious-constant-consumer.
and its significance to ongoing collaborative project:
In creating social meaning, in defining what it is that we place significance and belief in, we create a Third Sculpture, the “thinking sculpture”.
We have chosen, as two artists and curators, to craft meaning through experience, to re define what an object means and to give it meaning outside of its utility. We presented artists, designers, illustrators, and sculptors with information on modern consumption and eating vessels, we then urged them to re interpret that basic knowledge, add to it, to transform it, and produce something that could contribute to our exhibition.
We have communally worked to add meaning to method- through all of our conversation on a vast array of modern consumption dilemmas over the course of one semester, through programming and scheduling, through interaction with many artists and creatives, through the study of anthropological and historical fact, we have attempted to redefine the meaning of a coffee mug, of an eating prosthetic.
“As a community we shape our lives through communication with others”
Western Eating Utensil Encyclopedia:
The knife is the oldest eating utensil, originally made from sharp stones used as fighting tools and food processing. With the advancement of the Neolithic age, basic stone knives were developed with crude wooden or animal hide handles. In the Bronze age (3000-700 BC) metalworkers were able to forge rough versions of metal knives from copper and bronze.
With the development of iron and steel in the Western world knives became commonplace among every class of people. It was common practice for everyone to carry their own eating knives during this time. These knives were sharp tipped, useful for both eating and fighting. Eventually, during the 17th century King Louis XIV of France banned the use of sharp tipped knives and the new ground-down point knives became commonplace at the table.
A spoon can be used to consume both solid and liquid foods. Due to its multi-use in the process of consumption, our Paleolithic ancestors most often used simple bowl shaped utensils that looked a lot like the modern day spoon. Most often, seashells were connected to wooden sticks in order to properly serve larger amounts of food, as well as easily consume individual portions. With the arrival of the Middle Ages in Europe wooden and metal spoons became commonplace. The Anglo-Saxon word spon, meaning a chip or splinter of wood, points toward widespread use of this material for Northern European spoons.
Although knives and spoons have been in use for tens of thousands of years, forks became commonplace only 1,000 years ago. An Englishman named Thomas Coryate brought the first forks to England after seeing them in Italy during his travels in 1608. The English ridiculed forks as being unnecessary. “Why should a person need a fork when God had given him hands?” they asked. Slowly, however, forks came to be adopted by the wealthy. They were prized possessions made of expensive materials intended to impress guests. By the mid 1600s, eating with forks was considered fashionable among wealthy British. Forks used solely for dining were luxuries; they quickly became markers of social status and sophistication among nobles
Before our ancestors ever discovered how to work metal, they first discovered the utility of ceramic. This enabled them to make a very rough sketch of the modern day mug. Although these mugs had a handle on the side similar to modern-day coffee mugs, these older versions were made with all kinds of materials ranging from skulls, clay, wood and metal. However, these versions of mugs were difficult when used for hot beverages as they would leak, break or even contaminate the liquid held inside. It was not until around 600 A.D. when porcelain was invented in China that the production of the sealed and coated mugs we know today became possible.
After the discovery of metals the material possibility of drinking vessels became much greater than before. With advancement in metalworking the chalice and the goblet were created. Goblets are featured prominently in multiple artworks dating back thousands of years ago. One of them most common types of goblets is the chalice. Chalices are so old that they have been dated back to the early beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church originally used during Holy Communions to carry Communion Wine. Chalices were a form of goblet made of precious metals such as gold and silver and often accessorized and encrusted with jewels, designed mostly for ceremonial purposes.
The earliest form of the plate were made from been large leaves, gourd halves or seashells which would be used as simple bowls for holding food. Food items would be placed on larger leaves and would be consumed communally by all members of a tribe, family or group.
The “trencher” was the next form that the plate took. The most popular substance used for creating trenchers was bread, a technique that lasted well into the 16th century. Very coarse flour would be used to make the bread, it would then be left to sit and harden for several days before being sliced and used as an eating utensil. During a particular elaborate meal, several trenchers would be carved for each diner. After the meal was finished the trenchers would be discarded to the dogs.
My experience and involvement in the curatorial process over the course of this semester has been multi-dimensional and vast. Above is my portion of the research conducted, in collaboration with Ariel, for our Eating Prosthetics publication (to be finished by December 16th). This research and publication will serve as additional artistic agency for redefining the meaning of an eating vessel. We have taken great inspiration from Joseph Grigley’s Exhibition Prosthetics and Ben Kinmont’s various publications on art and social life through Antinomian Press. It was our curatorial goal to bring together works of art across many disciplines to close the gap between eating utensil and art object, to offer assistance in creating a conscious-constant-consumer and to define an eating vessel outside of its position on a place mat, to define it as a vehicle of consumption, and as platform for conversation about modern consumption dilemmas.
Through the experience at the Storefront, the experience of curating and facilitating the installation of Constant Consumer, the collaborative effort of our on going publication project, and countless curator-artist interactions I have gained some real experience as an art facilitator and curator. I have realized the importance of a communal effort in the face of a complicated modern question, the vast impact a group of artists and creative types can make by even beginning to find solutions to these dilemmas, and the significance and allegorical meaning of a single cup of coffee.
Most importantly I can now add some curatorial tools to my artistic repertoire including- vinyl install, research and production, artistic negotiation and compromise, art handling, communal conceptualizing, exhibition install, event programming, proposal presentation, publication design, and experience in commissioning exhibition-specific work.
On Curatorial Process & Reflections
CONSTANT CONSUMER —>EATING PROSTHETICS
“As a community we shape our lives through communication with others.” – Ben Kinmont
The understanding of our interaction with others and that reflexivity to see how it shapes our lives was both the interest and the method of making for Constant Consumer. The naturally loose structure of how the curatorial premise for both Storefront’s Blend: Discourse by the Cup and Constant Consumer developed mirrors and justifies the end conversation I desire to have from the show. ‘How is it that the daily moments of intake, of consumption, in our lives affects our larger understanding of value? Or is it that our larger beliefs in value informs the decision we have in seeing and choosing objects because we have a sense of their preciousness? Or rather is it, the answer to the previous two questions is, “yes”, and that a conversation needs to be had where both signified and signifier are acknowledged as equals?”
When thinking about how this entire show/class/experience panned out I can not help but wonder where the moment of “worthwhileness” was best exemplified. It is important to realize that this show functioned in an institutional structure, that the class was already promised a highly visible prized exhibition space. This is pointed out in terms of acknowledging the situation that we curate in, the conversation that was being spoken even before the first day of class. From a certain perspective, one could say that the act of the student’s consumption of the course was what brought value to the course. For after all, if no one was around to take the class or chose not to take the class, the meaning would be void because the purpose of the class could not be fulfilled. The monetary value, the time spent, the physical structure of a classroom space and its availability all influence and enforce the perception that the time spent in the class room and projects derived from the class room are valuable.
This perception of value was then reinforced through the conversations we had with one another. A clear example of this was the time spent on the coffee and the concept of coffee. It was not that all these things were not already valuable before our conversation, but rather that by having a conversation (many conversations) it became more important to the whole group. With the combined incentive of caffeinated conversation and the supporting structure of a class we were able to continue the larger project to a more-full exhibition.
Constant Consumer came about through the effort a many, many conversations. While this is certainly not different in terms of other exhibitions, it was particularly interesting in gauging how individuals involved in this project engaged in dialogue on the project. There was moments where the concepts of the show was made evidently clear by the satisfaction of a full personal conversation, while at other times it was stifled by the endless unreliable chains of constant email updates. The ways that planning this one exhibition permeated the whole of the semester was incredibly interesting, as it greatly expanded beyond a “normal” class project.
In someways this curatorial blog post only adds to that endless dribble of insular dialogue. While there is certainly value in writing and posting and doing, it seems somewhat lackluster in comparison to other more pressing task at hand. If we moved from the era of “art for art sake” could that not tie into curatorial practice as well? If curating is not asked to “curate for curating sake”, that one could argue, implicitly suggests exhibitions as a way for the space to move outside of itself, then should not the parts make up for the sum? The requirement of the blog post, where viewer engagement can be measured down to the the quantifiable number of clicks on a page, becomes a self-indulgent task. The act of sharing is reduced to this little box on this little screen, and one can not help but think, ‘this probably is going no where’.
Nonetheless though just like our endless mode of consumption, one seems to push through, to keep-going, to keep taking in terms of curating. I keep pushing through the requirements needed to complete the course and finish the exhibitions. For example, as part of my role as the main contact for the Eating Prosthetics portion of Constant Consumer, I needed to figure out the final resting place of the long 8 foot by 2 foot table that was built for our exhibition installation. This ended up with a new experience renting a truck in the city, pushing back the inherent fear that results from zipcar deadlines and crashing into pedestrians. (Parallel parking a truck of Monroe and Wabash was not the most pleasant experience). I keep, keep-going, this meaning that even though the class is over and there are no immediate consequences apparent with not finishing assignments like this blog-post. (Although, I could potentially be threatened with a no credit for the course). And finally I keep taking. Curating in its core is asking of others to connect, whether this is through an email response or through an understanding of the larger curatorial premise, we want to convey a message to someone else. All this is to say I find that the curatorial process of Constant Consumer was challenging and interesting just like the overall message of the curatorial exhibition.
When posing the three subtopics underneath the larger umbrella Constant Consumer it seems already there that a split in our understanding of what it means to “constantly consume” was already inherently skewed project to project. Constant Consumer: The Ritual of Everyday Consumption, Constant Consumer: Eating Prosthetics, Constant Consumer: The Ways Our Daily Consumption Consumes Us all attempted in their own way to get somewhere while also being in that insular circle of consumption themselves. Whether any of us really where able to get the heart of the matter is highly debatable. As a whole class a combined group we may be closer to the point of the project, but without a larger discourse around the topic I do not believe that we could critically assess whether the final exhibitions/ final reflections really begin to scratch the condition of the daily consumer.
Overall this experience has been a gratingly positive one. It would be untrue of myself to say that this was one of the most successful exhibitions that I have put together. However, I’ve learned a lot. Not so much in the technical side of curating necessarily, but on the inter-personal side of curating specific to a course within the institution. I learned about the difficulties in attempting to have a foot in both world and the unstated biases of others and myself. The Constant Consumer through the course Curatorial Practice became as much about the the world and those who partake of it was about the class – appropriate, difficult, and an overall enriching experience.
Constant Consumer – Coffee
Stephanie Chu’s Coffee animation and drawing installation is a product of intense collaboration. The project traces its origins to the dialogue created from the event Storefront Blend: Discourse by the Cup and the subsequent collaborative exhibition Constant Consumer. When we were first introduced to Stephanie Chu’s animation, my fellow curators (Gabrielle Burrage and Siyuan Jin, aka Sisi) and I could recognize its potential for driving discussion and proposing a criticality of consumption in a humorous manner. Questions then manifested as to Coffee’s relationship to other works in Constant Consumer, its function as an artwork exhibited within the SAIC community, and its autonomy as an animated work. As curators, we invested heavily in collaboration as a means of addressing these issues through our diverse perspectives.
The evolution of the project is tied to this spirit of collaboration between Gabrielle, Sisi, and myself, along with the artist, Stephanie. Through vocalizing our ideas and inviting constructive criticism, we expanded the limits of Coffee’s dialogue with its space and the school. Site specificity in association with the Neiman Center Café and a corresponding chalk illustration developed from our curatorial dialogues. One aspect of being a proactive agent in a curatorial team is the need to understand the boundaries of relationships involved with any curatorial project. It was therefore important to directly involve Stephanie in the curatorial team’s discussions. We were wary of redefining Stephanie’s work and how it would be interpreted.
In working through my own thought-processes of curating, Boris Groy’s text “The Curator as Iconoclast” was especially enlightening. Groys analyzes the contemporary role curators in presenting and de/sublimating art. There are two pertinent statements that I particularly internalized in moving forward with my team’s curatorial project. The first is Groy’s claim that “Artworks presented in [these] exhibitions/installations take on the role of documentation of a curatorial project.” In the second statement, Groys continues his sentiment in stating, “the main objective of curating must be to visualize itself, by making its practice explicitly visible.” According to Groys, curatorial practice as a product of art making cannot escape the logic of visibility. Prior to this curatorial project I held a certain hesitancy regarding the curator in the role of producer. How could I reconcile this hesitancy with the eventual outcome of the installation Coffee, which bears a heavy curatorial hand?
While this is a question that I am still considering, I am drawn to Groy’s notion of curating as visual documentation. The hand of the artist (Stephanie Chu) is visually evident in not only the lines of her animation, but more immediately through her hand drawing of the illustrated cups that increase each week according to Neiman Center coffee consumption. Her contribution is accounted for in the presentation of her work and its relationship to the larger exhibition. Similarly, the agency of the curatorial team is on display. The visual evolution of the Coffee project in the final installation is evident to me as one of the curators. Our thought-processes, discussions, and aesthetic suggestions are inscribed and documented within the space. There is a clear visual and conceptual expansion beyond Stephanie’s animation. This includes site specificity through association with the Neiman Center Café and multiple artistic media.
The spirit of collaboration between Gabrielle, Siyuan, Stephanie, and myself is the immediate takeaway I cull from this curatorial project. Curating is a process of thought and visualization. It requires a building of relationships, a creation of dialogue, and an understanding of how to be an active engager with artwork.
As part of the Constant Consumer exhibition, I worked with teammates Eric Lengsouthiphong and Siyuan Jin to curate the work of artist Stephanie Chu. Our process started at The Storefront: discourse by the cup, where our Curatorial Practice class hosted an event that showcased two documentaries on coffee production and distribution, as well as a local coffee shop tasting where visitors selected the brews they wanted to taste based on the descriptions of the coffee provided by baristas. A guest at The Storefront event introduced our team to SAIC undergraduate in FVNM/Animation student, Stephanie Chu.
Stephanie’s Coffee animation sheds light on the larger theme of consumption seen in Constant Consumer, as well as explores how we can often times function with an addictive, over-reliance on and over-consumption of coffee.
When we were introduced to the animation, we were quickly drawn to Stephanie’s animation style and how she represented her concept in a humorous way. Stephanie draws inspiration from her professors Jim Trainor, Matt Marsden, and Chris Sullivan, as well as animator Chuck Jones and comic writer and story-teller Stan Lee. Her animation uses a heavy-edged technique, which immediately attracted our curatorial team. The shakiness of her drawing technique in the animation expresses the irritable tendencies of someone who has missed their morning coffee fix, as well as the coffee jitters that descend after consuming too much coffee.
To expand the scope of the drawing beyond the confines of the video monitor, Stephanie drew in chalk on blackboard an illustration of the multiple coffee cups tossed aside by the animated character in the film.
Each week Stephanie drew additional coffee cups, adding to the the existing drawing of the pile, until the accumulation crested the monitor playing the animation. Not only did the cup pile mirror the cups cast aside in the animation, but it numerically represented the weekly coffee consumption of SAIC students at the Neiman Center Cafe.
The animation, running on a continuous loop, coupled with the drawn pile of cups further informs and brings viewers an awareness of their consumption habits. Just as the animated character in Coffee is consumed by the coffee he drinks just as much as he consumes it, we as constant consumers live our lives in a similar loop of consumption each day.
About her animation, Stephanie states:
“Coffee has become a scarily necessary part of many people’s lives. I have a friend who wakes up every morning hating absolutely everything in the world — until she has her daily cup(s) of “venti half white mocha, half cafe vanilla with whipped cream frappuccino. Thank you.” It doesn’t stop with just one cup, because that’s never going to be enough.
There’s coffee everywhere I turn. I’ll walk down Michigan Avenue and see a Starbucks right next to Caribou Coffee and another Starbucks across the street. Is it really necessary to drink coffee to the point where your hands begin to shake? Is coffee necessary for you to function? I don’t know. However, I do think that an overreliance and over-consumption of anything is detrimental. So drink your coffee if you need it, but try not to become nothing more than a puddle of lovely, aromatic brown stuff.”
Curatorial Process and Reflection:
Delving into the role of a curator has been a focus of my exploration this semester. As we’ve learned from Harald Szeeman in Hans Ulrich Obrist’s “A Brief History of Curating,” the role of the curator is multi-dimensional and multifaceted. Developing my curatorial practice is something I have just begun to consider and uncover. Looking back at this semester, I have found that my curatorial lead as an administrator and my curatorial approach as a collaborator have been influenced by my experiences watching independent curators over the years and how they interact with artists and co-curators. Observing these mentors have been valuable in understanding how to initiate, negotiate, and facilitate the complexities and intricacies that go into planning and curating an exhibition. This has been beneficial for me when working with our artist Stephanie Chu, my co-curators Eric Lengsouthiphong and Siyuan Jin, the SUGs staff, and outside parties whose approval we’ve needed in order to install the exhibition. Most importantly, I have found the ‘curator as collaborator’ approach works best for me to ensure that every party involved in the exhibition planning is comfortable with the execution of decisions. As a team, we’ve had to work together to address and overcome any issues or challenges we encountered along the way, and had to remain flexible and able to evolve with the project and exhibition as a whole. Together, we worked to curate Stephanie’s animation so that it demonstrated the overall curatorial premise of the exhibition Constant Consumer, as we also worked with Stephanie so that her concepts could connect more directly with SAIC students. In connecting the animation with students in this way, we hope to have encouraged students to become more conscious consumers.
Working with my team on our part of the exhibit as well as with the class on the larger Constant Consumer exhibition as a whole opened me up to new curatorial experiences throughout the class. I look forward to further cultivating my curatorial practice in the future.
(text of in-class presentation on November 25, 2013)
The original idea for this event was provided by Brandon Alvendia, the owner of The Storefront, a space open for artistic experimentation in Logan Square. In the early stages of our planning process, Brandon contacted the class and suggested holding an event on coffee and coffee consumption at his venue. This offer caught the attention of many members of the class and was finally executed as a class project.
“Storefront’s Blend: Discourse by the Cup,” took place on October 20 at The Storefront. The event, which lasted from 11 to 4, collected a number of guests willing to converse and share coffee with the class members.
I am sure each participant had a different experience, I would like to provide my own analyses of what the event meant and discuss how in my view The Storefront event captured the multifaceted and varied understandings of the culture of coffee.
The Storefront is a small, intimate space, its width from one wall to the other measuring around five paces based on my own limited gait. There we set up two monitors opposite each other, placed on a table with some chairs, streaming two looped documentaries, Black Gold and Yoshi’s Blend.
Black Gold, 2006, a documentary film directed by Marc and Nick Francis,, is a story of struggle, focusing on one man, Tadesse Mesleka, who works to bring justice and fairness for Ethiopian coffee farmers exploited by multinational companies. To quote from its official website: “Multinational coffee companies now rule our shopping malls and supermarkets and dominate the industry worth over 80 billion dollars, making coffee the most valuable trading commodity in the world after oil. But while we continue to pay for our lattes and cappuccinos, the price paid to coffee farmers remains so low that many have been forced to abandon their coffee fields.”
Black Gold presents a moving tale laden with heavy moral messages. Its objective is to affect viewers in their choices as consumers. Coffee, described as a component of the international monetary exchange is reduced to another vice of the evil global capitalist empire.
Yoshi’s Blend, in comparison, is a vignette about one Japanese man, Yoshi Masuda, who offers coffee to tsunami victims as a medium of healing in the aftermath of disaster. While Black Gold focuses on the production of coffee, Yoshi’s Blend focuses on the benefits of coffee consumption. Instead of remaining within the direct dollar-per-pound capital transaction, the film captures the more intangible side of consumption. Yoshi is portrayed as a virtuoso of coffee drinking who demonstrates his highly specific ideas of what a cup of coffee should be and how it should be enjoyed. In this film, coffee is not the bitter product of the blood sweat and tears of underpaid farmers but a panacea for a disaster-stricken populace contending with grief.
These two films were streamed at The Storefront with no descriptions about their content. Some visitors sat down to watch several moments of both movies but none watched the entirety of either documentary, particularly because Black Gold is a 74 minute film. Most of the time, the films merely provided background noise, the screens flickering color caught out of the corner of one’s eye… barely outside of our conscience, occasionally catching attention but often ignored.
Another aspect The Storefront event captures are the different language and attitudes surrounding coffee. In this event, we served four different types of coffee purchased from local Logan Square venues: Gaslight and Cafe Mustache, two locally owned cafes that serve blends of coffee that cost around 17 dollars per pound, and Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks which are both international franchises.
In the case of Gaslight and Cafe Mustache, coffee is treated as something exquisite and special. The coffee in these cafes requires connoisseurship and knowledge, where both preparation and imbibing are treated as art forms. Their coffee is sold as beans and grounded upon purchase. The descriptions they use for their coffee is evocative and full of flourish: “creamy, full-bodied with spice, melon, blue berry maple syrup, an explosive fruity flavor”. It reminds one of the metaphoric vocabulary surrounding wine-tasting where people do not actually taste “melon” or “blueberry” but are REMINDED of them.
Although Starbucks comes closer to Gaslight and Cafe Mustache in their treatment of coffee, Dunkin’ Donuts is decidedly antithetical. Their pre-packaged ground coffee gets nothing more than “it’s good” from the man behind the counter. There is no mystique behind a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, which serves as cheap caffeine jolts for early mornings and late nights.
Included in these variations in treatment of coffee is the aspect of it as status symbol and one’s social identity. For example, Starbucks allows their customers to personalize their cup of coffee with different add-ons and replacements to provide “personal satisfaction.” And what does it mean for an individual to make the choice, ordering Venti one pump caramel, one pump white mocha, two scoops vanilla bean powder, extra ice frappuchino with two shots poured over the top (apagotto style) with caramel drizzle under and on top of the whipped cream, double cupped? Or more simply, what propels one to choose to drink a five dollar cup of coffee over a one dollar one? In the case of some countries, and here I speak specifically for Japan, China and Korea, it is also considered cool to walk around with a Starbucks cup. In short, drinking coffee, in a public space or private lounge, carries social meaning.
Lastly, The Storefront was an event shaped by participation. People were invited to attend and talk while drinking coffee. This experience is very much part of the history and culture of coffee drinking, and gives meaning to cafes, a specific type of restaurant that serves coffee alongside nibbles. Coffee venues have served as platforms not only for casual conversation but also for rigorous intellectual debate in the tradition of “the public sphere” as first introduced by philosopher Jurgen Habermas.
Habermas in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere lists Britain’s coffee houses, France’s salons and Germany’s Tischgesellschaften as places instrumental in organizing topical debate and discussion amongst the public.
The cafe as a meeting place for intellectuals originated in the Turkish cafes and was adapted by Western culture in the 17th century.
The oldest cafe in Paris, Café Procope, was frequented by Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Georges Danton, Jean-Paul Marat, Balzac, Diderot, and many others. Many poets, painters, writers and partisans of the surrealist movement frequented cafés of Montparnasse and, much later, Jean-Paul Sartre conducted philosophical discussions at the Café de Flore.
France’s rich cafe history more recently impacted the organization of café philosophiques or “café-philo”s, a grassroots forum for philosophical discussion, founded by philosopher Marc Sautet in Paris during the 1990’s. There were about one hundred “cafés-philo” operating throughout France and some 150 cafés-philos internationally at the time of Sautet’s death in 1998.
In summary, The Storefront event captures coffee in some of its varied status as part of society and culture. A cup of coffee cradles a list of binaries: it is at once a commodity and an experience, a rarified item and a cheap jolt of caffeine, an object of struggle and of healing, a catalyst for casual conversations and intellectual debate.
Drawing from this Storefront experience, I proposed to exhibit an interactive installation piece by artist Shawn Chua Ming Ren. Although this work was ultimately not included in our exhibition, I would like to discuss its basic premise and concept.
Shawn Chua is a performance artist from Singapore, currently working in New York. His proposed work titled “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons”, taken from a line in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock, derived its original inspiration from a phone interview we had at The Storefront event. Its inclusion was suggested by me and my group members as to provide a different perspective in the Constant Consumer exhibition. His work was to examine how coffee is not only a commodity but a provider of communal space and vehicle of conversation.
To give an example of Shawn’s interests, In his recent installation/performance Entwined at the Queens Botanical Garden, Chua sat on a chair suspended by a web of strings linking chairs, tables, frame, light bulb, a pair of scissors, printed words, and plants. As visitors navigate through the installation, they inevitably tug on the strings wound around Shawn’s body, as he consequently physically experiences each pull.
Chua’s work is a meditation on ecological balance, reflecting on ways to enact relationships of care, humility and responsibility.
His interest in coffee was proven limited through the interview, and in connection to his previous work, coffee is understood as something involving human interaction. One rhetorical question I remember Shawn asking is “What do people mean when they say ‘Lets meet up for coffee sometime’? We read between the lines, it could be a business meeting, a catching-up between friends, a suggestion of possible romance, and more.”
In this vein, Shawn proposed a participatory piece involving his personal notes and comments on napkins from a cafe he frequents and a video of him talking to strangers in a cafe and engaging them in conversation.
Before I go into detail, I would like to show this short clip from a Godard film which Shawn found best explained his objective:
Godard clip 5min
To quote from that whispered dialogue:
But what is an object?
Maybe an object is what serves as link between subjects allowing us to live in society, to be together.
Taking coffee as his object, Shawn imagined his scribbled napkin memos placed on several cafe tables where they can be touched and read. He also proposed to place several quotes from the Godard film with his napkins with an instruction asking people to whisper the words to themselves as it is done by the actors in the film.
In relation to the Storefront, “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons” would have been an exploration on coffee-drinking that involves not only the beverage but the location it is consumed and how. It is unfortunate that this work did not find its inclusion in this particular exhibition, but I hope to see it transpire in another opportunity.
Natalia Sanchez Hernandez
On Social Hecticness, Slowness and Cynicism
In his review of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s trilogy called Spheres, poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch highlights Sloterdijk’s theory that “younger thinkers have found themselves brilliant at diagnosis and helpless at cure” (Kirsch), resulting in a cynicism or “enlightened false consciousness” (Sloterdijk).
The Constant Consumer exhibition, in collaboration with Deborah Boardman’s Curatorial Practice course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, sought to delve into issues of consumption, community, morality, commodity, and ethics, through Ashley Szczesiak’s – one of the participating artists in the exhibit – elevation of the most mundane of coffee-drinking vessels, the paper cup, to a decorated and consideration-worthy “art” object. The disconnect between ourselves and the products we consume underlines SAIC alumni and curator at the New York-based public arts institution Creative Time Nato Thompson’s premise that “If products demand to be produced and consumed in ever-expanding contexts, they may also be adapted to durations more suitable to electronics than to what our bodies can endure.”
Through the transformation and subsequent elevation of the white paper cup, participating artist Ashley Szczesiak’s LATTE dada has a parallel two-fold objective as it seeks to impart “carefulness and thoughtfulness in regard to consumerism” (Szczesiak). The first is to lend itself as symbol of the hecticness in which we live our lives. As part of her morning ritual, Ashley’s daily commute to school consists of buying a small cup of coffee and boarding the train. As part of a “moment of solace during a busy morning,” as Ashley herself describes her morning ritual, she also embroiders a standard 10oz. size paper cup into a handmade work of art. As symbol of the hecticness in which we live, Ashley’s LATTE dada and the time period in which each cup is created fall subject to a context “adapted to durations more suitable to electronics” (Thompson); in other words, how much art can Ashley make under the time constraints of her daily commute? This rationale brings to mind Thompson’s argument in Contractions of Time: On Social Practice from a Temporal Perspective, “we are frantic workers even when we work against the very conditions that produce our franticness.”
The second objective Ashley Szczesiak’s LATTE dada emphasizes is Thompson’s theory that the arts environment is characterized by a slowness capable of undermining the hecticness in which we live in. Unfortunately, the slowness with which the arts environment should be appreciated is often overlooked. As noted in Bubbles, the first book of the Spheres trilogy, Peter Sloterdijk states that “By using technological reason, we have found ways to air-condition our bodies.” Technology allows for a fast relief to physical and mental stresses, and such is its reach that technology has transformed the artistic realm to one where exhibition, performance and such other artistic outlets are “reframed and displayed in a manner that accounts for the dematerialized and accelerated climate of today” (Thompson). Thus, the “sphere” that allows for personal, educational and cultural growth can, at times, no longer be appreciated with a slowness capable of dissipating the cynicism that surrounds us today.
As the exhibition Constant Consumer delved into issues of consumption, community, morality, commodity, and ethics, through class discussions and historic and contemporary curatorial and exhibition practices, our goal was to jumpstart dialogue about egalitarian coffee growth and production, fair trade markets, and mentally- and physically-mindful consumption. The exhibition represents the culmination of a semester-long diagnosis in regards to how consumption affects our lives. Ashley Szczesiak’s LATTE dada showcases Chisako Izuhara’s, Yezibel Ruiz’s – fellow curators – and my practical approach through curatorial and exhibition practices to dispel the cynicism that “Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference” (Sloterdijk). The Constant Consumer hopes to give way to a mode of consumption embedded in slowness, and is immune to the cynicism that surrounds modern consumer practices earthed on the more, the faster, the better.
Exclusion and Inclusion
The exhibition Constant Consumer was a project that continuously evolved over the course of the semester. This process first began with the Rooting exhibition, where we were asked as a class to create programming around the issues raised in the exhibition. The work of Marianne Fairbanks became my entry into the Rooting exhibition. Fairbanks creates dynamic textiles made of fabrics dyed with plants gathered from the lots of foreclosed homes. The work of Fairbanks calls into question the locations of these foreclosed upon homes, and the people who are left without, focusing the viewer on the locations of foreclosed homes in a particular Chicago neighborhood, and the owners who are left homeless. With the realization that these foreclosed homes are one of the many by products of the mortgaging and lending fiasco, the larger issues of the communities most affected by the misconduct of the banking industry come to light.
From Marianne Fairbanks work, I made connections from how communities develop and change through these foreclosures back to issues of Urban planning and the expansion of cities. The development of infrastructure is ruthlessly applied so that the creation of freeways bisecting communities of color results in the forced relocation of communities to specified areas considered undesirable. The ways in which city space is purposely intersected, divided, and dispensed speaks to larger issues surrounding communities of color and their survival.
Steaming from the work of Marianne Fairbanks and urban development, the work of Juan Luis Olvera addressing the ubiquity of vacant lots in Chicago seemed a natural fit. Juan Luis Olvera graduated with a BFA from SAIC in 2012. He mainly works as a sculptor, influenced by the work of David Hammons, Gabriel Orozco, and Francis Alys. His interest in architecture, labor (cleaning), the Dérive (Situationists), mapping, the use of space in an urban environment, identity politics, and DIY culture shape much of his artwork.
In Urban Domain, 2012, Juan Luis Olvera created a work in dialogue with the urban environment and vacant lots. The work involves locating where vacant lots with the city, and what impact they have on the communities where they are located. Olvera visits these sites and re-activates the vacant lots by removing pieces of rubble and accounting for their voids in the cityscape. The collected debris is than placed within the exhibition space, behind a false wall, to remind the gallery visitor of what is hidden in plain sight within the city.
The exclusion of Juan Luis Olvera’s work from the Constant Consumer exhibition was a choice of the artist. This came about after the shift in curatorial emphasis from the Rooting exhibition to the event held at The Store Front, Discourse by the Cup. This evolution of the project allowed for the inclusion of the work of Ashley Lynn Szczesiak and the dialogue that followed. Szczesiak came to our team’s attention via team member Natalia Sanchez Hernandez. While we were all initially excited to work with Olvera, Chisako Izuhara, Natalia Sanchez Hernandez and I came to the decision to move forward with the work of Szczesiak because of its relation to the themes motivated by class discussion and present in the exhibition. Through the work of Szczesiak, our roles as curators took shape and allowed us to realized our abilities as administrators, conversation starters, and decision markers. Though, I cannot help but wonder how we as curators could have framed a dialogue that would have included the work of Juan Luis Olvera, without forcing the artist to probe into issues of consumption and coffee. The threads of the dialogues are there in Overa’s work, but were not apparent enough to make the case for including Juan Luis Olvera in the conversation without completely stretching beyond the parameters of the Constant Consumer exhibition.
The Constant Consumer focuses on the dilemmas and evolution of contemporary daily consumption. Struck by how disconnected we are from the products we consume, the Constant Consumer allows us, as curators, to delve into issues of consumption, community, morality, commodity, and ethics. Through the elevation of the most mundane of coffee-drinking vessels – the white paper cup – to the status of a precious “art” object worthy of our attention, Ashley Szczesiak’s LATTE dada showcases how modern coffee-drinking practices can impart “carefulness and thoughtfulness in regard to consumerism” (Szczesiak).
Ashley Lynn Szczesiak is a Graduate student in the Master of Arts in Art Education. As an artist and an educator, Ashley focuses on the experiences that texture and touch bring to her life. For her, stitching “has been a way… to commemorate and meditate on the objects with which I am intimately in contact with.” Her pieces for The Constant Consumer give an aesthetically pleasing design to the sheer white cloak of a paper cup, while “lending itself to be a metaphorical ‘container’ for many things – physical objects, as well as intangible thoughts/feelings – even ineffable – sensations.”
My morning ritual includes buying a small cup of black coffee, taking a sip before adding a swig of cream (no sugar), and boarding the train for my commute. While living in roaring cities these past couple of years, I have come to consider my morning coffee ritual to be exactly that: a ritual – a moment of solace during a busy morning, a warm welcome to greet my day and set my intention to bring my whole (awake) self to the table and treat myself and others with kindness. Stitching has been a way for me to commemorate and meditate on the ordinary objects with which I am intimately (though unassumingly so) in contact with during my day and then elevate them from their mundane status into something worthy of being considered, if not adorned (decorated) for its service, simplicity, and beauty. I find the design of the coffee vessel to be an extremely pleasing one: both aesthetically, in its sheer white cloak and standard 10oz. size, as well as conceptually, by lending itself to be a metaphorical “container” for many things – like the intangible and even ineffable thoughts/feelings/sensations that might swell up and then simmer down. By taking a used coffee cup (and stained, with coffee and lipstick) and lovingly embroidering it… my adoration/decoration of the everyday ritual of coffee drinking wherein my hand literally meets the hand of the maker of my cup of coffee calls into question, ‘What does a handmade cup of coffee look like?’