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Curating by Coffee Cup

SAIC students set out to examine the intricacies surrounding coffee production, culture and consumption.

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Exploring Consumption Through the Prosthetics of Eating



Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris

We are constant consumers, existing in a culture where coffee and daily consumption rituals are integral to the way we live. During a semester-long analysis, students in the Arts Administration and Policy Department’s Curatorial Practice class set out to examine the local and global intricacies surrounding coffee production, culture, and consumption.

In order to provide a space for a dialogue around these subjects, they collaborated with Brandon Alvendia, an artist and curator who runs a small, alternative art space in Logan Square, The Storefront. The class transformed the space into a pop-up coffee shop where they hosted a one-day gathering, The Storefront’s Blend: Discourse by the Cup, discussing, consuming, and understanding coffee.

The event screened two coffee-centric documentaries, one a sobering revelation, one an inspiring portrayal of humanity. The 2006 documentary Black Gold highlights coffee’s cost both to the consumer and to the grower, by following the manager of the Ethiopian Coffee Union as he travels the world in search of a fair market value. In the short 2012 documentary Yoshi’s Blend, coffee becomes the rich and idiosyncratic vehicle for healing in tsunami-ravaged Japan. Discourse by the Cup also hosted an anonymous local coffee shop tasting in which visitors chose their drink based on the verbal descriptions of the brews by local baristas. Visitors and artists were invited to engage in discussions about the documentaries, as well as their own interactions with coffee.

The conversations throughout the semester and the event, which are documented on the blog,, became a basis to curate an exhibition. “Constant Consumer,” opening November 18 at the Neiman Center SUGS gallery, investigates and calls into conversation the complexities of daily coffee consumption habits.

Photo by Patrick Reynolds.

Photo by Patrick Reynolds.

Ashley Szczesiak’s (MFA Art Education 2014) installation of hanging embroidered cups, “LATTE dada,” exemplifies how modern coffee-drinking practices can impart what she calls “carefulness and thoughtfulness in regard to consumerism.” She affirms how the form of a coffee cup “lends itself to be a metaphorical container for many things: physical objects, as well as intangible thoughts and feelings, even ineffable sensations.” She relates how she elevates mundane coffee-drinking vessels “by taking a used coffee cup stained with coffee and lipstick and lovingly embroidering it … my hand literally meets the hand of the maker of my cup of coffee calling into question, ‘What does a handmade cup of coffee look like?’”

SAIC undergraduate student Stephanie Chu’s animated feature “Coffee” satirizes the consumption of coffee as habit forming and at its addictive extreme. Chu’s chalkboard drawing, a growing pile of cups, will represent a small percentage of SAIC’s coffee consumption. The artist will extend the pile each week to mirror the coffee consumption by students at the Neiman Center Café.
The final installation of the exhibition includes artists currently at SAIC, alumnus, and artists outside the SAIC community. The works reflect a variety of interpretations that artists have on daily consumption. Similar to the takeaway for the exhibition, each work analyzes the use of eating prosthetics and the role it has in daily life. How do the items that aid our consumption alter our perception of what we are eating? How do they influence our ideas on the production of consumables? An additional publication produced in parallel with this part of the exhibition delves further into that question through historical research regarding the physical prosthetics of eating in a number of cultures: cups, bowls, forks, chopsticks, etc.

The exhibition aims to inspire dialogue among viewers to consider the impact of seemingly banal acts, such as drinking coffee from cups. Ultimately, the works in “Constant Consumer” provoke reflection on personal and social ramifications of our daily habits.

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