I postponed this moment for fear of the workload in describing the entire process that led us to the event of February 15-16.
To try to retrace in a linear way the whole process of conception and creation of the project we have to go back a long time.
“POWER” This was the title we were given to start our conceptual process to create a two-day installation on the fifth floor of the Tate Modern in London.
The first meeting took place on 10th October 2019 where we were presented with the project and the guidelines to follow.
Between October and December there were several meetings where we started to define the theme we wanted to deal with.
Initially, the starting idea to represent the “Strength of Materials” was to do an in-depth research on different materials related to immoderate consumption or amoral trade.
Avocado, hair, coffee, sugar, tea, salt, cocoa. These were the materials from which we started.
We carried out an initial research on each of the chosen materials and how they could represent the theme of strength in different ways: technical capabilities of the material itself, production, trade, sustainability, cultural connections, and everything that characterizes a material from its extraction to the consumer.
After the first meetings we decided to reduce the number of materials because of the extent of the work we would have to deal with without being able to go deeper into any of the many.
Our choice initially focused on sugar and coffee. The latter was chosen because the cafeteria at Tate Modern (Tate Cafe) carefully selects the producers from which to buy the coffee beans and then roasts them in London, trying to make the process as sustainable as possible right down to the consumer.
Shortly afterward we decided to abandon sugar as well and so it became THE POWER OF COFFEE.
Having chosen to deal with the subject of coffee, we started to do research on coffee and how we could represent the whole process from production in the fields to the final consumer. It took many meetings between us, students, to define how we could create an installation that would relate production and consumption.
On December 5th we had the first meeting at the Tate Exchange where we were supposed to present ideas to see if they were possible or not.
As in all projects the day before the meeting there was the final sprint to define the ideas to present. We started the meeting in the afternoon and tried to brainstorm the various possible ideas and came up with a first draft of the idea, but we realized that our idea had several parts that were still not well defined and represented. A group of us decided to stop and continue the meeting to arrive at a proposal that followed a logical thread.
After several hours of exchanges of thoughts and reasoning all together in the Learning Zone we finally arrived at two ideas that would show in a critical and metaphorical way the process of coffee production and the problems arising from it. The ideas put down in the afternoon were thus completely overturned.
The next day, the day of the meeting at the Tate Modern, we presented our proposals and Jane gave us her feedback and told us to continue only in the direction of coffee, eliminating sugar for good.
Our request to work with the Tate Café was accepted with great enthusiasm and Jane introduced us to Thomas, the manager of the Tate’s coffee roasting company, who is in charge of the selection and processing of London’s Tate coffee.
We were offered to go and visit the Tate’s roasting company but, as it was already December and Christmas commitments did not give us the opportunity to visit, we made our visit at the beginning of January where Thomas explained how he had been managing the coffee production since South America.
In the meantime we started to do some experiments to see how to mix with an ideal percentage of the pottery powder and the coffee waste collected by the college cafeteria (initially).
The recipe was simple, ceramic powder, coffee and water, cold-pressed with a small mold prepared in the laboratory.
In those days at the same time we were introduced to Rain, a young professor from Chelsea College of Art who would accompany us for the following month in the preparation of the installation, until the event itself.
With the team in charge of the production of the coffee columns (among them I am also there) we started to build a big mold to make the coffee and ceramic column.
The first result, even if only a few centimeters high, was possible, so we thought about what to improve and how high we would like to make them.
We had to consider the amount of ceramics we needed, the amount of coffee we would be able to collect, and the technique with which we would then build the towers.
On January 24th we had the last meeting at the Tate Exchange where we presented the first “bricks” made with coffee and ceramics and the final idea of the installation.
We discussed what equipment we would need for the two days of installation and we were told the times to load and unload the material and the time to assemble the installation.
Seeing again where we were going to do the installation made us even more aware of how the space would be used. Having the opportunity to make an event in a museum of such importance is a unique opportunity, seeing the way we dialogue and manage the collaboration with such a large institution has made me grow professionally. The rules, the equipment, the people who coordinate, the need to have approvals long beforehand to show videos, the privacy, the natural materials… all these things are perhaps parts that we take for granted in the preparation of an event or an installation but they make up the bureaucratic part of our work, essential and sometimes hated for the limits they have but there is a solution to everything!
The space during the event was divided into 4 parts mainly: information, tasting, installation, sharing.
At the entrance we would have placed the information part, the stands made with sticks (which we have in the studio in large quantities) on which are hung the jute bags coming directly from the coffee plantations of South America and kindly donated by the Tate’s roasting company.
The part of the information reported various research data on coffee and various stories of the producers of the plantations, together with a screen on which some video/documentaries about the production and marketing of coffee were played in a loop.
Each visitor would be given a card with significant data on coffee written on it, while on the other side there would be a space to put stamps. Each card has a different number of stamps, 1, 2, or 3; each stamp corresponds to a button made by the visitor, and, at the completion of the stamps, a tasting coffee will be given. So each person will have to “work” in a different way to get to the same reward, the coffee, this is to testify how in the world is unfair the division of earnings and work. A coffee producer receives a minimal part of the cost of a coffee and undoubtedly does the physically harder work and has no way to get a fair compensation for his efforts.
Likewise, women, who are 1% of coffee producers, receive even less without a real reason but only for being a minority.
The card is therefore a symbol of a system that is not based on meritocracy but on pure chance.
The 4 columns of coffee standing upright represent our system of resources and consumption.
The “smooth” cylinder (column) from which we start is our natural world, our resources, in this case the “quantity” we have available of coffee.
When we consume a resource, we subtract our consumption from this cylinder, we process it, exploit its energy and put it back into the global system as waste. This waste or consumption is represented by the brick that people create by removing material from the column and, after having pressed it and transformed its appearance, it is put back over the column.
Our consumption is therefore formed by many bricks, as many as the people who use the resource taken into consideration, and so above the cylinder will create a new construction made from our waste, if consumers will have the shrewdness to position their brick in a responsible way thinking about the people who will come next, then you can have a structure with solid foundations to continue to use our resources, but if this fails as often happens, the system will collapse.
So we need to be aware of our consumption and the impact it has on the world we live in.
It is as if we ourselves are standing on a column (our planet) from which we have to take the material to live and create energy but if we are not careful how we do it the earth will collapse under our feet and we with it.
In the tasting part instead we would have offered a cup of coffee to those who would have completed their card with the stamps. The coffees we served were provided by Thomas, two different types of coffee, one from Nicaragua and one from Brazil.
A few weeks before the event we went to a lesson of Thomas at the coffee roaster where he showed us how to taste coffee, what are the parts that make it up, how to enhance the taste, how to evaluate the goodness of a coffee and, above all, how to prepare and serve the coffee in view of the event.
It was a very instructive morning, I learned a lot of things that I ignored about the world of coffee, and Thomas was able to pass on to us his passion for this drink.
There were many considerations made during the day and as many were the coffees drunk, in fact when we went out I had my heart pounding!
On that occasion I also had the possibility to see the coffee processing, because I missed the visit made in January, I imagined a huge structure with many different machines and instead, all the coffee processing for the Tate is done in a shed not too big with this machine with a complicated look that manages to do the whole process.
Looking back to that day I smile and I think that the thing that impressed me most of all was the personality of Thomas, of which I had heard so much positive talk, his passion in transmitting his knowledge in the area exuded passion and dedication for his work, his calm in acting, in talking struck me.
The preparation of the material for the event took place almost all the 6 days before.
Being in the team of building the columns, stands, and equipment to make the bricks, I will tell this part.
Esmond, Kien, and I formed the team. Everything we designed was made entirely from recycled material that we found in the workshop itself or in the studio (wooden sticks 15 mm in diameter).
The first thing we made was the mold for the columns, initially we made it 35 cm in diameter and, after testing, we reduced it to 28 (I wanted to make 25 and Esmond 30, out of the way).
Esmond initially worked on creating tools that would allow us to do the work more quickly. I was pleasantly impressed by his “inventions” and I think that without them we would not have had time to build everything.
The material we created can be summed up in a list:
4 stations to press the bricks
4 stands for columns (4 different heights)
2 molds for the columns with a pressing system made of toothed belts
This material was finished on Thursday afternoon in the studio, the day before we entered the Tate.
On Thursday evening we stayed late in order to prepare the cards to be printed, we did the stamps, finished the stands for the jute bags, mixed the pottery powder (30 kg) with the coffee, in order to have as many things as possible.
I almost forgot, the coffee we used for the installation was collected directly from Tate’s coffee shops. Every day two of us went to pick up these bags full of coffee waste made during the day, sometimes very heavy and sometimes less.
The coffee, taken to the studio, was stretched on some curtains that Jacqueline bought and then, once dry, passed through a sieve (built by us) in order to make it fine and without lumps.
The studio for a month became a mystical place, a place of coffee worship; the smell was really invasive and the coffee itself took possession of the space, leaving only a small part for us.
The collection of coffee was less than we had assumed before collecting but in the end we managed to have the necessary quantity to make the 4 columns.
The recipe for our mix was 30% ceramic powder and 70% coffee, then we mixed them with water and pressed them into the mold.
The Thursday night before we were left without a scale to make these compounds, a little desperate for the amount of things to do, we were lucky that Tas saved us at the last moment by impregnating me with his personal scale in pounds. I took care of this part with other colleagues and it was once again positive to see how collaborating things can be done well and quickly, a common effort is enough to reach the final goal together.
This was the preparation in university, which lasted months, with the final sprint as in every project, with the satisfaction of having collaborated productively and with the positivity of doing things well.
I think one aspect that had an impact on the realization was that we had no budget for the realization. This factor was stimulating, to understand how to make everything at the lowest possible cost, using only what you have available.
How would the project have changed if there had been a budget? Would it have changed?
How would we have used it? Actually, the money we spent at the end of the event was returned to us (I think) but we didn’t even know that this could happen.
Working in a team is never easy, there were 17 of us working together and I think we all learned a lot. As I’ve already said there were so many positive collaborations that allowed us to reach the common goal of all of us, especially the closer we got to the day of the event.
There were also some less positive aspects of working in a group that are useful to grow professionally and to understand how each of us can do his/her part in the project. This dynamic occurred only in the conception part of the work while in the realization part, on the contrary, it was very nice and positive to see how the different groups communicated and worked in unison to create something together.
We all grew professionally and we all became more aware of how we like and feel able to participate in common projects.
For the preparation part in university we have finished, now let’s move on to the event and preparation on-site!