Features Performance Published 28 February 2014

Art at Work

Rachel Porter on art, the service economy and the Hunt and Darton Cafe.

Rachel Porter

In Hunt & Darton Cafe everything is art. The menu is art, the waiters are art, the customers are art; each piece of cake is a piece of art, the bills, the gross profit or the loss – all of it is art. It’s important that you realise that this is not the performance of a café.

This is a café. It’s a functioning workplace with a manager, a kitchen porter and a very decent avocado and bacon on toast. But it’s still art – functioning art if you like. This is art at work, art at your service. Newcomers to the Cafe are often confused, perhaps because it is unclear how much of their participation may be required. But what I enjoy most about the Cafe is you can take from it what you like – you might stay there all day doing jigsaws and ordering the set menu (a triage of performance performed by the hostesses themselves) or you might just grab a coffee to go, whilst holding a giant cardboard placard stating ‘THIS PERSON IN TAKING AWAY, OKAY’ while you wait. Although the occasional customer is scared off by Hunt & Darton’s trademark pineapple headgear, most are won over by the unique charm, general absurdity and the beans on toast.

What I find particularly clever about Hunt and Darton Cafe is the way it subtly presents the similarities between hospitality and performance – something that every artist who has ever worked as a waiter knows all too well. Yet through its playful presentation the Cafe is also saying something more serious about capitalist economy, about art as commodity and systems of exchange. This can be illustrated in the ways the Cafe fails to fulfil certain expectations.

For example, Hunt & Darton never really smile. They don’t scowl, but it’s a definite distinction from the sugar coated sweetness you often find from waiting staff. These two are stern but fair; they are happy to oblige but don’t aim to please. The business is broken down and exposed on two giant blackboards where you can see exactly how much money the Cafe is taking, or losing. Complaints are not necessarily greeted with a solution, and almost never with an apology. Instead they are placated with the sincere yet futile declaration that: ‘we knew it wouldn’t be good enough’. If the customer is still unhappy then the complaint is written up on the blackboards for all to see.

By establishing a café and then distorting and disrupting the normal interactions that occur in this capitalist space of labour, Hunt & Darton point at the act of service and ask their customers to consider the exchange that is taking place. Are they customers or are they an audience? Can they be both? Theatre and Performance theorist Nick Ridout writes extensively on the complex relationship between labour and performance (brace yourself for some academic writing):

‘Performance in the service economy discloses the full commodification of human action. Far from being the paradigm of authentic self-expression, performance reveals itself as exemplary commodity (it commodifies action, not just things) and as the site for a critique of its own commodifying processes.’ – Performance in the Service Economy: Outsourcing and Delegation

OK! Now, let’s apply that critical theory to the case study in question:A performance of a café, or rather a café that is a performance, makes the commodification of human action more obvious than usual. A waiter in a café is a waiter, a waiter in a performance is an actor, but a waiter in Hunt & Darton Cafe is somewhere in between the two, and it is in this liminal space that the customer recognises them as a human commodity, a person at work, art at work. And, it is this recognition that encourages the customer to think about the nature of human commodity and capitalist economy. Thus the café as art becomes social critique.

Well done. We made it.

Interestingly service economy related performance is becoming increasingly prevalent in the live art world. The Haircut Before The Party plays with notions of commodity and exchange by offering free haircuts as long as you talk about social politics instead of your holiday destination; similarly, Open Barbers decided to put their clients in control of the service, offering non-gender specific haircuts on a pay what you can basis; whilst Katy Baird’s Cam4 and Oreet Ashery’s Say Cheese make fascinating allusions to the sex industry, each offering one-to-one encounters where the audience member dictates what the performer will do. These artworks, or ‘art at works’, make us reconsider traditional Capitalist structures and systems and perhaps encourage us to think of alternative economic models.

Hunt and Darton are doing just that by remodelling their own structure for the UK tour of the Cafe. They are outsourcing the artwork by employing new Hunt and Dartons who will run the cafes in their place. By delegating their performance Hunt and Darton are allowing other artists a level of agency within the work. It’s not dissimilar from having shares in a company. These new Hunt and Dartons are invested in the project and as employees have much to gain from the success of the Cafe. In turn they prolong the life of the Cafe and improve its productivity, as with multiple Hunt and Dartons there is the possibility of having multiple cafes open at once. Perhaps this outsourcing also has something to say about the way we value authenticity and originals over copies and replicas. But you’ll have to ask Hunt & Darton about that – just make sure you pick the real ones…

Hunt & Darton Cafe opens in Brighton from 5th – 29th March 2014 (11am-7pm closed Monday and Tuesday) at 16 Brighton Square.

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Rachel Porter is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine