Getting Social with Instant Coffee

by Liza Montgomery

Since its inception in 2000, the self-proclaimed, “service-oriented” artist collective, Instant Coffee, has self-consciously embraced an aesthetic of “bad taste.” From its arsenal of catchphrases and a garish, neon colour scheme borrowed from low-budget advertising signage to the kitschy, crocheted blankets and DIY “cooler-speakers” that furnish its constructed social environments, the group’s approach to making art is tongue-in-cheek. This approach, however, belies a more serious and destabilizing project.

Instant Coffee: Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little, Photo Courtesy of Western Front

Instant Coffee’s disavowal of “good taste” in favor of cost-effective, less time-consuming, and generally less pretentious simulation is addressed in the group’s Manifesto:  “In its taste, Instant Coffee barely resembles the real thing, but its effect is the same.  Regardless of taste, it still works.  Quality is beside the point.”   According to Instant Coffee, the desired effects—forming genuine social and artistic networks, discursive exchange, and creative and collaborative production that values process over product—can be achieved within the art gallery, without the pretensions of market-driven, object-centric, so-called “good art.”

Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little, Instant CoffeePhoto Courtesy of Western Front

It’s with these cheeky slogans circling my mind that I scan the schedule of events in conjunction with the collective’s current retrospective exhibition, Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little, at the Western Front.  Catching my attention is a weekly Classical Reading Group, scheduled amid playful events with names like Paper Folding Doodle, General Joke Store, Wood Whittling Club, and Paint it Pink, as well as more traditional gallery fare like guest-artist exhibitions and a lecture series. Classical Reading Group appears curiously highbrow, carrying an air of pretension that Instant Coffee otherwise seems intent on dispelling from the gallery space. The collective has provided an earnest explanation for its choice of text—Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities—stating that this selection was based on the text’s contemporary political and economic relevance.  Though this explanation is perfectly believable, my impression of the group’s playful approach leads me to consider a more off-hand and self-conscious criterion for its selection.  Given that the event is situated within a retrospective exhibition format—a form that often lends itself to the monumentalization of artistic styles—I find it difficult to discount a superficial reference to the collective’s own shared residency in the rival cities of Vancouver and Toronto through the novel’s famously bifurcated setting and title.  It is these tensions that compel me to pick up my copy of A Tale of Two Cities, and make my way to the Western Front on Tuesday night.

Paint it PinkThe object I brought to the “Paint it Pink” event.

The exhibition consists of two opposing plywood bleachers that divide the gallery into three distinct spaces.  The result is a central theatre-like structure that acts as a frame and platform for the various social gatherings, and two smaller exhibition spaces that house displays of ephemera and objects from the collective’s past projects. The Classical Reading Group meets within this makeshift theatre. Though the structure lends a sense of performance to the social interaction it frames, the event’s proceedings do not distinguish it from those of any other reading group. The standard rituals take place: participants read the text, and discuss its history, themes, and contemporary relevance.  Yet these ordinary interactions are undeniably framed within a carefully constructed, controlled space that is part of an artistic practice, which is in turn reinforced by the environment of the art institution.  This causes me to more carefully consider the significance of the interactions taking place. Personal introductions are followed by small talk about weekend activities and open studio spaces.  These exchanges and connections will inevitably transcend the time-space of the gallery and exhibition.

Photo Courtesy of Western Front

Playing with the boundaries between art and life is not a new endeavor.  In his influential 1998 book, Relational Aesthetics, French curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud champions artistic practices that use social interaction and human relationships as both subject and medium.  Bourriaud foregrounds projects such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Free), at 303 Gallery in New York, in which the conceptual artist converted a gallery into a kitchen where he served rice and Thai curry to visitors for free. Bourriaud argues that this work is part of a set of artistic projects that produced alternative relational spaces in response to a social sphere that was becoming increasingly mechanized and commercialized. A decade later, with electronic communication devices and online social networking continuing to transform human interaction, Instant Coffee’s own social project, informed by the concerns of relational aesthetics, is becoming increasingly relevant.

So maybe it’s time to put down that iPad, and go check out Instant Coffee at the Western Front—or, as they themselves adeptly put it, “Get social, or get lost.”
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The exhibition runs until April 7th, 2012 at the Western Front (303 East 8th Avenue, Vancouver).  For a full schedule of events, or for information about Instant Coffee’s other projects, go to
www.front.bc.ca or www.instantcoffee.org

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