December 13, 2008

Guggenheim Museum Turns Coffee Into Art

Plunked on the spiraling ramp of the Guggenheim Museum is a wooden counter with young baristas working three red espresso machines, handing out free cups of espresso, cappucinos and lattes. The line for the giveaways sometimes stretches more than a dozen people down the ramp.

It’s confusing for many a passer-by.

Is the Guggenheim expanding its downstairs cafe? Are the stylish machines being celebrated for their design, as the Museum of Modern Art honors consumer products. Were the baristas performance artists? Or perhaps it’s a promotion for Illy Caffe? (à la Whole Foods- or Costco-style sampling … companies are getting awfully creative these days).

Actually, the bar, the espresso, the baristas and the experience of drinking are part of an installation in Guggenheim’s barely there, sometimes invisible exhibition, “theanyspacewhatever,” which runs until Jan. 7. It’s an experiential exhibit, one that emphasizes the artistic for senses beyond just sight.

Of course, the piece that has gotten the most attention is the bed-hotel room by the German artist Carsten Höller. A fee (reportedly $700) and a reservation will allow two people to spend the night. You don’t have to stay at the bed. Apparently you can walk around the museum, but a guard follows you around.

The coffee exhibit, just a stretch down from the bed, was created by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Douglas Gordon and is part of an installation called Cinéma Liberté/Bar Lounge. (The other half is a movie.)

This barista-as-art piece seemed really out there — a little beyond us. So City Room asked the installation: Um, do people really get it?

“Some of them do, some of them don’t,” said Mariuxi Tapia, one of the baristas.

“We always have to explain it to them,” chimed in Travis Rosenberg, another barista. He noted that a lot of people think the coffee is being given away free “because the Guggenheim is nice.”

Or they think it’s just a cafe, he said. “They’ll come and ask, ‘How much is it?’ and we’ll say, ‘Free.’ And they’ll say, ‘Three?’”

But others assume the baristas are the installation — perhaps models. “A lot of people will come and ask, ‘Are you the art?’ And we say, ‘As much as you are,’” Mr. Rosenberg said.

Mr. Tiravaniga is known for incorporating food into his art. In 1992, he made his mark by making and giving away Thai curry at a SoHo gallery to anyone who would come eat it. He had his first solo show at the Guggenheim in 2005.

“The artist tries to do socially interactive art — it’s challenging ‘Art as an Object’ and is more ‘Art as an Experience,’” explained Mr. Rosenberg, who himself is a musician.

Art as experience. O.K.

Arguably, New York is experiencing a coffee renaissance these days with cafes, coffeehouses and espresso bars popping up like mushrooms after a fall rain. And we hear, of course, about the art of espresso-making, the art of roasting coffee, the art of the white latte foam. But we wanted to know, can the consumption of coffee itself really be considered “Art?”

So calls were made to some coffee connoisseurs for their feedback.

“Can coffee be art?” mused Jonathan Spiel, owner of Tea Lounge, which is known for doing intricate designs in the foam on top of their lattes. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

Though when pressed, he foundered a bit. “It’s a little bit out there for me, too,” he admitted. “I’m not sure what it means outside the art of making a cup of latte or good cappuccinos, and knowing your customer.”

Then, he added: “I don’t get the art experience of it as part as an exhibit. I wish I did know, because maybe I’d be in the Guggenheim.”

“I guess there is a deep, deep comment,” said Caroline Bell, co-owner of Cafe Grumpy, which has two shops in New York City. Ms. Bell compared the Guggenheim piece with how the Takashi Murakami exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art also elevated the interaction with every day objects.

“Once you put it in that environment, you are forcing people to think of it that way,” she said.

There is, of course, coffee-napkin art, but that’s probably not what the Guggenheim is celebrating.

“Our idea is to make this coffee experience polysensual,” said Andrea Illy, the chief executive of Illy, whose coffee is being distributed as part of the installation. “It’s as if we are functioning in an installation. There is a practical function to this installation.”

Illy has a long history of artistic sponsorship, particularly with contemporary artists. “Usually we have our own projects within major artistic exhibitions,” Mr. Illy said. “To be presented as the art itself, that is something big. It’s the first time that has happened.”

Ms. Bell volunteered that the conversation with the barista itself can be savored. “Art is interaction,” she said.

Mr. Spiel echoed that idea of the customer experience: the ordering, the questions, the conversation, the exchange.

“We put your milk in it. We put your sugar in it for you. When we hand you a cup of coffee. We want you to take a sip and that is exactly what you want,” he said.

Then there is the art of making the coffee itself.

“Being a barista is an art, but it takes a lot of skill,” Ms. Bell said. “I don’t think coffee is art to a lot of people. In our stores, we try to consider it that way. It takes skill in how we prepare it.”

Of the installation, she commented, “Hopefully they are doing a good job in grinding.” (There actually is no grinding. The machines use pre-made capsules.)

Then there is art in the very space of the coffeehouses themselves, which are often crafted to be homey and comfortable.

“We want them to feel at home; our places are like an extension of their living room,” said Mr. Spiel, whose Park Slope Tea Lounge is a wide expanse of old couches and worn wooden tables.

Of course, if it is the comfy coffee house that the installation was aiming for, it falls awfully short. It has more a barren industrial feel than a welcoming lounge. The bar is made out of unpainted plywood. The sign is spray-painted on ina scrawl, rather than in a full-bodied graffiti. And instead of comfortable chairs, there are just two limp bean bags.

Then again, the whole experience of drinking espresso upstairs in the Guggenheim is startling and a bit contradictory, particularly since the security guards won’t let you bring coffee from the downstairs cafe upstairs — but you can walk around with coffee from the installation.

“The Guggenheim is a very special museum, it’s practically a sculpture,” observed Carlo Bach, the art director for Illy. “It’s like to drink a coffee in the middle of the sculpture.”

Apparently, the installation did not want the users to have too much of a user experience — or at least not the people who would stay overnight in the bed installation, Mr. Rosenberg said.

“We started hiding things so they couldn’t come down here and make their own coffee,” he said.

Source: NY Times

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