Essays

On Coffee Houses, Salons, and the Post Arts

by Man Bartlett on March 6, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.

So back in the late 15th century, Ottoman people started gathering to drink together.

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The beverage they consumed? The magical elixir and arguably the greatest drink known to humanity, coffee.

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The potion stimulated a state of consciousness that encouraged creative and political discourse. Basically, people talked about stuff they couldn’t talk about elsewhere. The OG counter culture, really. Coffee houses, as they came to be known, eventually spread across Europe.

By the 18th century, in England, coffee shops became known as penny universities — places where aspiring academics could learn without the prohibitively high cost of tuition. Regardless of your social status, if you had a penny, you could enter and imbibe while getting your learning on.

Around this same time, members of high society in France were congregating privately in their courts to talk about philosophy and art. These meetings were often organized by wealthy women patronesses and were called salons (from the Italian word for the reception hall in a mansion). The salons functioned similarly to coffee houses in offering space for the exchange of ideas; access, however, was more limited by social status.

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Great, so what does this have to do with the internet?

Well, with a few exceptions, the presence and cultural significance of coffee houses and salons all but vanished by the end of the 19th century. There’s a host of factors for this, but one important reason was the rise of newspapers, and ultimately the technological age on the whole. These changes took power out of the hands of groups of individuals and placed it into the network of communicated information, which, of course, was still controlled by a select few. Instead of going to a coffee shop to discuss politics, people could read about it in the paper. By the end of the 20th century, the industrial and technological complex had evolved to the point where information, and by extension ideas, could be communicated nearly instantaneously.

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Fast-forward to today. According to the internet, as of June 2012, 33 percent of the world is online. These 2.4 billion people have access to more information than basically anyone else in history, ever. Woohoo! As such, each of these individuals is, in theory, capable of hosting his own “salon,” or starting his own coffeehouse.

One way this is accomplished is by choosing who we follow.

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Following is no longer confined to a small number of people. We follow hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. Some of them are original content creators, some of them are curators, still others exist only as galleries/institutions/corporations/etc.

In fact, I’d bet more people follow this Vito Acconci parody account then were ever aware of its namesake when the original “Following Piece” performance occurred in the fall of 1969.

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And increasingly, it’s not just who we follow, but also who we share/reblog/RT. Who we “like” and who “likes” us. The pool of posts that we swim in (our Twitter and Facebook feeds, our Tumblr dashboard) can often provide us with a feeling of personal “belonging.”

Depending on who we follow, our dashboard can feel like a less pretentious coffee shop or a less haughty salon; it can also feel like a doctor’s office or the most offputting of contemporary white cube galleries. The difference is that we control our experience to a greater extent than ever before. And communities of like-minded individuals can come together virtually and “support” each other in the form of the social currency of likes and reblogs/RTs. But without the ability to “dislike” posts or the encouragement of more meaningful engagement, the only alternative is nonaction. This nonaction can further isolate people: If you have a blog that no one follows, do you still have a blog? Conversely, it can lead people to create content that is geared toward generating likes/reblogs. In my experience, the most popular blogs tend to have a singular vision and focus (think Mr. Div, Terry’s Diary, Frogman). By maintaining a consistent (if restricted) voice, they’re able to convey their content to their audience faster. There’s no mistaking an original Frogman post for anything else; I can spot a Terry Richardson photo in a heartbeat. And yet, while I may be inclined to “like” content I see from these folks, I am not often surprised or overly inspired by their posts.

Another way that people have created community online, for some time now, is simply by tagging their content. In doing so, virtual “rooms” are created, within which people can consume their particular flavor of content, as well as discover potentially related content. #GIF #Politics #LOL #Fashion, ad infinitum.

One thing that stands out is that we are encouraged to post/consume immediately, and often. This is a function of the platforms themselves and their respective companies’ intentions to keep us as glued to their services as possible. In a project I undertook to subvert this, I spent an entire month (August of 2012) posting only one image per day to my Tumblr. Each day at noon, it was the same thing: an animated GIF that blinked black and white at a different rate. Most people (if anything) were confused and/or annoyed, but after the month was complete, I posted a link my Tumblr’s archive page. The result was a monthlong time capsule that blinks hypnotically in random sequence.

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We are crafting our own cultural legacies, one post at a time. And these legacies are no longer relegated to locations (the coffee shops of Istanbul, the salons of Paris), but rather to platforms.

I like to think of the artists who are creating in these spaces, myself included, as “Post Artists.” We publish our art in the form of posts, but we’re also creating work that could be considered “after” traditional interpretations of art. And while it’s become something of an art world cliché to be “post-” something, we are living in an age that is quick to label things “post-”. This title attempts to reclaim that word with some humor. The state of Post Art is open to roughly 34 percent of the world. And the content that is being created in the space ranges from popular culture GIFs to ’net art to porn, and everything in between.

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What remains to be seen is if, in the future, cultural spaces created online will be remembered in the same breath as the salons and coffee houses of yore — if there will be a distinction between the way content was shared and experienced then and how it is now. Was what we saw fly by on our dashboard just a passing conversation in a Turkish coffee house, or was it the beginning of a radical reinterpretation of cultural consumption?

And with that, consider this page open for discussion …

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Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.

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  • http://twitter.com/GBenard Gonzalo Bénard

    In Portugal there’s a deep coffee culture, the concept of bakery means coffee and cakes. You go with an excuse to meet someone, as an excuse to take a coffee and you eat a cake. Bakeries have several tables for 2, and everbody meets everybody around the table, with 2 coffees and 2 glasses of water, most of the times with 2 fresh cakes. For small talk or for deeper conversations. I just spent 1 year in Lisbon, my studio was in the center and had around 20 people: our meeting place was always at the coffee/bakery in the corner.
    This tradition, the old famous “tertulias” and the wonderful short “Coffee and Cigarettes” directed by Jim Jarmusch with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, was what inspired the series of photography “Conversations Around the Table”: http://gbenard.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/conversations-around-the-table

    • JosephYoung

      sure, the line the “cultural significance of coffee houses and salons all but vanished by the end of the 19th century” is rather overstated, but the post is good overall. btw, cool project, Gonzolo.

      • http://twitter.com/GBenard Gonzalo Bénard

        Thank you Joseph. Yes, the post is interesting… however, I find internet posts/forum etc not to be a place of dialogue as it could be, but more as sharing or even imposing the blogger’s truth, mostly not open to discussion. People start not taking part, and when they want to, they open their own blog to express their thoughts. Internet is too individual/personal to leave space for other thoughts in our own “coffee-room”, maybe because with the lack of facial expression talking about something, can lead to misunderstandings. So if they agree, they click on “like”, if they don’t, they just leave. Or they just leave even if they agree to not leave track. We all became voyeurs on other’s opinions, not part of them. And once people have the need of being accepted, they don’t disagree expressing their own personal point of view. This leads to individuality and loneliness as I’ve been witness with my project “B Shot by a Stranger”. I have lots of private emails with people’s opinions on my work and articles: most of them don’t do that in public comments.

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