MONICA FLYNN DISCUSSES HER PROJECT ‘THE CAFÉ SOCIETY’.
As part of Leitrim County Council’s SPARK residency (funded by Leitrim County Council, Leitrim Local Enterprise Office and the Arts Council), artist Monica Flynn devised ‘The Café Society’, a programme of public encounters and events running from May – July 2014 at the Café Lounge in Carrick-on-Shannon.
Discussing her residency experience with Joanne Laws, Monica Flynn describes the history of coffee houses as places of culture and commerce, modern-day coffee politics and the café as an enduring discursive public space.
Joanne Laws: Can you describe some of your initial ideas for the SPARK residency, particularly with regard to the setting, and how you tackled the idea of a ‘dual proposal’, ie with benefits to both artist and company?
Monica Flynn: The history of cafés sparked a lot of my initial ideas, particularly Parisian cafés, as public spaces where artists, writers and philosophers gathered. I had previously been involved in a project called ‘Food for Thought’, which focused on food sovereignty, so looking at the politics and economics of coffee production and public space was of initial interest. Café Lounge owner Georgia Visnyei is quite passionate about coffee, the particulars of its production and its history, so I also imagined capturing that in some way, through research, a publication or other ephemera. I was keen to find a way of combining both business and creative outcomes.
JL: How did your initial research into the politics of coffee evolve or begin to take shape?
MF: I hung out a lot in the café, enjoying the coffee, reading about coffee production and learning about the process of growing, roasting etc and the nuances of how coffee is served in different countries. I initially wanted to address the conditions of coffee production in some way and created some Christmas decorations to sell, with the proceeds going to a Coffee Workers Advocacy charity, but that didn’t seem to register with patrons of the Café. It took time to figure out how to engage the regular but transitory audience in the Café. Following this phase of research, I set aside coffee politics and focused on the Café as public sphere.
JL: You curated a series of discursive events to take place in the coffee shop. How did public engagement emerge as an important element?
MF: I was interested in the growing number of cafés around Ireland and how people are using them. Georgia herself talked about how she and her partner Gabor had spent a lot time in cafés between jobs. The café struck me as a sort of in between space – neither work nor home – where commerce, publicness and cultural debate intersect. I wanted to harness notions of the public sphere and economics in a way that would appeal to the Café audience. The primary aim was to test the appetite for public debate, inviting speakers from the media, academia and the arts.
JL: How did you organise the thematic content of the three events?
MF: As artist-in-residence in a business setting, I was conscious of the rhetoric around ‘creativity’, which renders cultural production as economic commodity rather than something generated by the collective efforts of citizens. Pragmatically, I was concerned with ideas around active citizenship and the diminishing number of spaces for public debate. Philosophical reading material influenced my examination of cafés as discursive spaces, ‘heterotopic spaces’ and ‘spaces of potential’. I set up a small library in the café, which included political and economic texts and other reading material that reflected my interests.
I wanted to use the first event to ‘set the scene’, while creating a sense of conviviality and a context for future events. I invited local artist-publisher Mari-Aymone Djeribi, publishing historian Dr Maire Kennedy and storyteller Fiona Dowling to contribute. Collectively they introduced cafés as part of an early public sphere, with an examination of their history in Europe and connections with publishing, commerce and literature. Maire discussed the history of cafés in Dublin, their role in commercial affairs and the early newspaper and publishing trade in Ireland. Fiona told a number of stories relating to the folklore of coffee in countries where coffee houses first became popular.
Focusing specifically on the public sphere, the second event ‘Café Philosophie’ was pivotal in the series. Dr Maeve Cooke discussed Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action. While Niall Crowley a convener of the Claiming our Future initiative, reflected on ways to counter modern-day Ireland’s “low-energy democracy” and reaching consensus on what kind of society we want. The event was chaired by Carole Coleman, who made interesting observations about her own profession, remarking on the media’s tendency to cover provocative political stories rather than asking critical questions. The audience got involved and there was genuine interest in the need for change, more robust debate in public life and a different kind of citizenship.
JL: Discursivity seems to have emerged as an important aspect of this project, both in terms of your subject matter and your chosen modes of dissemination. On the idea of the public sphere, do you think (heterotopic) spaces to ‘congregate’ in are important for a democratic society?
MF: Yes I do think spaces for open discussion – to air and share ideas and social concerns, or act out alternatives – are very important. We create or find these kinds of spaces, but it’s difficult to think of many spaces that function in this heterotopic sense. On the idea of congregating, there are many instances where we congregate in Ireland, including the pub, sports events, festivals and religious ceremonies. However, heterotopias function beyond that, as sites for action and speech that step outside of institutional or social norms, or where different relational norms can coexist and overlap. The café is a space where people come to take time out, to work, to meet others. It can be a place to strike up conversations with strangers. It is a privately owned yet public space. ‘Café Society’ tapped into this existing atmosphere and allowed discussions that would generally happen in institutional spaces to happen in this more relaxed setting. Over the last couple of years my work has employed different means to involve an audience. Creating a discursive space seemed like a natural progression.
JL: With different degrees of ‘publicness’ emerging out of the artist-in-residence model (from invisible processes like expanded discussion, to highly visible processes such as blogs and social media), how has this residency enhanced your professional development?
MF: This opportunity really allowed me to push my practice and myself, as I was able to devote an extended amount of time to one idea. It took time to devise appropriate responses to the setting and its transient audience, and the usual creative arc was slower, which was challenging but also really beneficial, as it allowed me to do a lot more research and reading. It was hugely beneficial to engage with other artists and professionals from a variety of fields including history, publishing, media, philosophy, social activism and financial theory. In practical terms, managing a publicly funded project involving a number of contributors demanded that I consider not just my role as artist-in-residence but the vested interests of all parties in the events and outcomes. In some ways, the open-ended nature of the discussions was a leap of faith, with the experience and response of the audience underpinning the effectiveness of the project. I come away from this residency with greater trust in my process and confidence in my ability to enthuse others and to turn theoretical concerns into a tangible and engaging form.
JL: As the residency draws to a close, how are you reflecting on your chosen modes of dissemination and your experience overall?
MF: Each discussion was documented, so now I hope to edit this footage with a professional editor for further dissemination via my own website and on the Café Lounge website, hopefully extending the audience for the work and the life of the project beyond the original business and artistic outcomes. I would like to create a newspaper type publication, echoing the original publishing or dissemination function that Coffee Houses had, but this will require more thought and funding.
For future projects and residencies, it might be worthwhile building on this self-reflective approach, gathering and disseminating ideas as the work progresses, while trying to be more confident or strategic with my decisions. A number of people have asked whether events will be ongoing, and it is my hope that, as I step away from the project, some of the audience members might take the idea forward. This would be a great bonus and a sense of achievement for ‘Café Society’.